Why the Supreme Court Is Relevant | Marbury v. Madison

Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher who specializes in making history and geography more engaging

In episode 42 of Supreme Court Briefs, the Supreme Court becomes kind of a big deal by getting judicial review.

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Produced by Matt Beat. All images by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines. Music by Electric Needle Room (Mr. Beat's band).

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The District of Columbia

March 2, 1801

President John Adams just has a couple days left in office, but he’s been pretty busy making last-minute appointments for his Federalist friends to important positions. It’s basically a mad rush to get them in before the new President, his arch enemy Thomas Jefferson, takes over.

He nominates 23 justices of the peace, basically judges in lower courts, in Washington county. One of those nominated was a dude named William Marbury. Like Adams, Marbury was a Federalist who talked a lot of trash about Jefferson when he ran against Adams before the election of 1800.

Even though Adams nominated Marbury and the other 22 folks, and even though the Senate approved their nomination on March 3, and even though later that day Adams signed the commissions, which were basically the final orders so they could get to work, several of them didn’t get the job.

Wait...what? Why? Well John Marshall (aka “Lil’ John”), the acting Secretary of State for President Adams, did not deliver those commissions on time.

At noon the next day, March 4, Thomas Jefferson officially took over as President. He instructed his Secretary of State, James Madison to only deliver those commissions to some of the nominees. You know, the ones he liked. One of the people who never got his commission was William Marbury. Yeah Jefferson didn’t like him.

Marbury was like “that’s messed up man, I was promised that job.” He wanted to force Madison to deliver that commission, so he petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case and the Court actually said “sure, let’s do this.” They heard arguments on February 11, 1803. Oh, guess what? By this time, John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Wait a second, isn’t that a conflict of interest? Shouldn’t Marshall recuse himself from making a decision for the c---nahhhh

4 of the 6 justices on the Court discussed three big questions for this case.

Should Marbury and the other Justice of the Peace nominees get the jobs they were promised?

Can they even sue in court to get their jobs?

Hold up, does the Supreme Court even have the authority to say they COULD have their jobs?

The Court announced their decision on February 24, 1803. All four sided with Marbury. They thought Marbury deserved that position and thought yeah, he should be able to sue to get it. However, hold up...Madison kind of won, too, because the law that enabled Marbury to sue to begin with, The Judiciary Act of 1789, was actually unconstitutional because it gave the Supreme Court more power than the Constitution allowed. Wait, so the Supreme Court decided to weaken their own power? Well, not exactly. You see, John Marshall knew what he was doing. He pretty much did this. He had the long term in mind, baby. While the Court gave up power by declaring the Judiciary Act unconstitutional, they also gave the Court a far greater power. The power of judicial review, meaning they could call out laws if they went against the Constitution. So if the Court could declare the Judiciary Act unconstitutional, they could declare ANY law Congress passed unconstitutional, you see? Lil’ John and the rest of the Court had made the Supreme Court kind of a big deal. Dare I say. DARE I SAY. This was the most important Supreme Court case in American history.

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