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The Beginnings of Judicial Review: Marbury v. Madison

Arguably, one of the most distinctive cases in US Supreme Court history, Marbury v. Madison is prominent for building the foundations of judicial review. The case’s verdict, delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall, gave power to federal courts to review and declare legislative and executive acts unconstitutional. This essentially established the authority and political autonomy of the American Constitution for years to come.

Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo Credit:


In 1803, outgoing Federalist President John Adams passed an act allowing him to appoint a number of Federalist party supporters as judges in an attempt to advance the influence of the Federalists. However, the newly inaugurated Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson directed his Secretary of state, James Madison, to withhold commission that was to be given to one of the appointed Federalists, William Marbury. This immediately prompted Marbury to sue Madison. Marbury’s legal counsel involved demanding the Supreme Court to issue the writ of mandamus (an order from a court issued to a lower government official to fulfil their obligation) to compel Madison to act.

This posed a complex predicament for the Supreme Court. If the court issued a writ, President Jefferson could ignore it as the court was in no position to enforce it. On the other hand, If the court did issue the writ, it would appear that the judiciary conceded in the face of the executive. This highlighted a fundamental issue for the sovereignty of the American Constitution as the “supreme law of the land”.

The Verdict

The newly appointed Chief Justice John Marshall delivered the verdict that Marbury was legally entitled to his commission because once the President made an executive decision, the secretary of state was bound to obey. He emphasized the rights of presidential decisions and its distinction in which courts had no business interfering. On the other hand, Marshall reiterated that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to issue the writ of mandamus, as doing so expands the original jurisdiction of the court which was in violation of the Constitution.

The ruling positioned the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land” and the Supreme court as the body that interpreted it. Chief Justice Marshall’s robust handling of the case reinstated the system of checks and balances, which ensured limitations on the authority of the three branches of government: the judiciary, executive and legislature.

Marbury v. Madison initiated the principle of judicial review and its importance in US Supreme Court verdicts. It can even be argued that it is a critical aspect in safeguarding the interests of the country from certain political decisions. Landmark cases such as Roe v. Wade (1973) and The Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved the significance of judicial review in upholding the constitution.


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