The Supreme Court: Taking Control

Taking Control

While Supreme Court action was delayed by Republicans when they stopped the court from meeting in the summer of 1802 after repealing the 1801 law, a case was filed by one of the judges who did not get his commission. John Marshall left 42 commissions on his desk when he left the office as Secretary of State. He didn't have enough time to deliver them. Jefferson told his new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver only 25 of the commissions left by Marshall. Four of the 17 judges who did not get their commissions filed suit in the Supreme Court asking for a writ of mandamus.

Court Connotations

A writ of mandamus is a common law practice that dates back to English law. A judge can force an official to carry out his or her official duties if the writ is granted.

The case in which the Supreme Court ruled on this issue was titled Marbury v. Madison. William Marbury was one of the slighted justices. James Madison was named as Jefferson's Secretary of State because he had the duty to deliver the commissions. Since Madison refused to deliver them, Marbury asked for a writ to force Madison to deliver the commissions. The case sat in the Supreme Court clerk's office for two years before it was argued. The Court was not even allowed to conduct business for the more than a year because the Congress had moved its summer 1802 session to February 1803.

There were three key questions to be decided by the court:

  1. Was Marbury entitled to his commission? The answer to this was an easy yes. The first Article of the Constitution empowers Congress to create federal offices. Marbury was appointed and confirmed by the Senate and his commission was signed by the Secretary of State.
  2. Was there a legal remedy for Marbury to remedy Madison's refusal to deliver the commission? This too was an easy yes, since the key purpose of a court is to provide a remedy if someone is wronged.
  3. Was the writ of mandamus the right remedy? Marshall surprised everyone by answering no to this question primarily because he said Marbury filed his action in the wrong court. The Supreme Court only had appellate jurisdiction based on the Constitution, so it could not rule directly on this writ. Marbury did have the right after this ruling to file the case in a lower court.

By concluding the court did not have jurisdiction, Marshall declared Section 13 of the Judiciary Act unconstitutional. The section gave the Supreme Court the right “to issue writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.” Marshall said in his opinion that this section was unconstitutional because the Constitution specifically only gives the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction is this type of case. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is …. The constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature.”

This ruling was the first glimpse into the brilliance of Marshall that would become a hallmark of his court. Everyone expected him to rule in favor of Marbury because he was an appointee of John Adams and a Federalist. By giving the Republicans a victory, he actually won a more important victory for the future of the Supreme Court—the right to overturn federal legislation. While the precedent to review state legislation had been established by earlier court rulings, this was the first time the Court took a firm stance on its right to overturn federal law.

The Republicans were so glad to win their case little notice was made of the more critical ruling. No one seriously challenged the right of the Supreme Court to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional.

Supreme Sayings

“What transformed Marbury from a simple ‘jurisdiction' case, sending the plaintiff back to a lower court, into a constitutional landmark was John Marshall's determination to force a showdown with Thomas Jefferson—his political foe and personal enemy—over the most basic question in politics: Who rules?” —Peter Irons in his book, The People's History of the Supreme Court

William Marbury never did get his commission and is not well known except for this landmark case. James Madison, as you probably know, served as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson for eight years before being elected president.

Marshall went on to firmly establish the right of the Supreme Court to rule state legislation unconstitutional in Fletcher v. Peck. In this case, the Georgia legislature granted four land companies territory that included most of present day Alabama and Mississippi. The land deal was tied to corruption in the state and a newly elected legislature in 1796 rescinded the agreement. The companies fought to regain their rights to the land, which was ceded to the United States in 1802 for $1,250,000. As part of this cession agreement, the companies were to receive 5 million acres, but they were not happy with the settlement, so they rejected it and filed a suit.

In 1810, the Supreme Court ruled that even though the land deal was conceived in fraud, the companies' claims to the land were valid because Georgia's grant of the land was a binding contract. The Marshall Court overturned the 1796 state legislation that rescinded the companies' rights to the land. Congress eventually settled with the companies by paying them more than $4 million for their claim.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.