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Judicial Branch & Supreme Court

Judicial Branch & Supreme Court

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Home Civics Judicial Branch & Supreme Court History Marbury v. Madison and the Federalist Legacy

Marbury v. Madison and the Federalist Legacy

  • 1803 case established principle of judicial review
  • Chief Justice John Marshall issued famous ruling

Quite a bit can happen during an outgoing president's lame duck period—those days between the election of his successor and that newcomer's inauguration. This has been particularly true when the leader of one political party has prepared to relinquish control over the executive branch to the leader of the opposition party; after each election cycle, as the public began to focus on the plans of the president-elect, the lame duck commander-in-chief has tended to pass a few last-minute executive orders, slip in a couple of unpopular decisions, and make political appointments favorable to his party.

John Adams, the second president of the United States and the first executive to lose his seat to a member of a competing political faction, was certainly no exception. Adams, a Federalist, lost his bid for reelection in 1800 in a nail-biter of a race against Thomas Jefferson, Adams's Democratic-Republican rival. As if to add insult to injury, the Democratic-Republican Party also scooped up enough congressional seats to gain control of the legislature. The sun was setting on the Federalist era, and fast.

Bitter over his loss and determined to extend the legacy of his party, Adams chose to move forward with a number of politically motivated appointments in the four months that remained in his term. (Until 1933, inauguration took place on the fourth day in March; since then, new presidents have taken office on January 20.) With the help of the Federalist-dominated lame duck Congress, Adams appointed sixteen new judges—each and every one, a loyal Federalist—to the federal courts. Federalist John Marshall, already serving as Secretary of State, became Adams's pick to fill the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In addition, Adams nominated 42 new justices of the peace, the vast majority of whom were also—you guessed it—Federalists. (Take that, Jefferson!)

So, President John Adams enjoyed the last laugh, right? Well, not exactly. Each and every one of his signed and approved commissions of office had to be delivered to their recipients in order for his appointments to take effect. Adams entrusted this task to his Secretary of State John Marshall, who, some historians argue, failed to dispense each commission before Adams left office and he took his own seat on the Court. It's possible that Marshall assumed that his successor, Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State James Madison, would finish the job. But no such luck. Jefferson was on to Adams's court-packing plan and ordered Madison not to deliver the remaining commissions.

Plan foiled? Not if would-be Federalist appointee William Marbury had anything to do with it. In 1803, Marbury and several other federal nominees who had been prevented from assuming office due to their appointments never being delivered filed suit before the Supreme Court. Based on the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the Court the power to issue writs of mandamus to any appointed official, the plaintiffs asked the justices to issue a court order forcing Secretary of State Madison (and, by extension, President Jefferson) to complete the deliveries, thereby confirming all of Adams's appointments. The Court debated whether Marbury and the other nominees had a right to these commissions and, therefore, to the writ of mandamus they had requested. And even if they did, did United States law actually allow the Court, as the plaintiffs argued, to grant such a writ?

For the plaintiffs in Marbury v. Madison, here was the good news: The Court, led by Chief Justice Marshall, decided that, yes, Marbury and the other appointees had a legal right to their commissions. The bad news? Marshall ruled that the Judiciary Act of 1789 violated Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, which restricted the Court's jurisdiction in such cases. Therefore, because the Act of 1789 was unconstitutional, the Court could not and would not issue the writ. In declaring the plaintiffs' legal right to their commissions, Chief Justice Marshall attempted to pressure President Jefferson into ordering Madison to complete the appointments. (And you can bet that Jefferson was none too pleased about being scolded by the sidekick of his former nemesis.) Ultimately, however, the Court's ruling allowed Jefferson's administration to deny commissions of office to Marbury and each of Adams's remaining "midnight judges."

But that's not all. Damaged egos and ruined political careers aside, the Marbury v. Madison ruling established a new, more critical role for the US Supreme Court in the development of American government. In declaring the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, Chief Justice Marshall set the precedent for the Court's power of judicial review, the right to review and take action against any legislation—local, state, or federal—it deems to be unconstitutional. So, despite President Adams's failed attempt to salvage the Federalist legacy by packing the courts with Federalist officials, in the end, it was Chief Justice Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison that would be widely remembered as the hallmark of the Federalist era.

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