From the 2009 News Archive
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Profs. Graber and Stearns "Duel" Over Judicial Review

In a "duel" of wits co-sponsored by the School of Law and the American Constitution Society, Professors Mark Graber and Max Stearns crossed swords on the topic "The (In)Significance of Marbury v. Madison in the Law School Curriculum" on Oct. 19.

Watch the discussion.

The case arose when Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Republican Party, won the election of 1800. The outgoing President, John Adams, proceeded to rapidly appoint 58 members of his own party to fill government posts created by Congress.

It was the responsibility of the Secretary of State, John Marshall, to "deliver the commissions," finish the paperwork, and give it to each of the newly appointed judges. Although Marshall signed and sealed all of the commissions, he failed to deliver 17 of them to the respective appointees. Marshall assumed that his successor would finish the job, but when Jefferson became President, he told his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver some of the commissions, because he did not want members of the opposing political party to take office. At the time, those individuals couldn't take office until they actually had their commissions in hand.

William Marbury, whom Adams had appointed as justice of the peace of the District of Columbia, was one of these last-minute appointees who did not receive his commission. Marbury sued James Madison and asked the Supreme Court of the United States to issue a writ of mandamus, a court order that requires an official to perform or refrain from performing a certain duty. In this case, the writ would have ordered Madison to deliver the commission.

Marbury argued that he was entitled to his commission and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court of the United States original jurisdiction to issue a writ of mandamus. Madison disagreed. When the case came before the Court, John Marshall the person who had failed to deliver the commission in the first place was the new Chief Justice.

Marbury v. Madison (1803) was the first time the Supreme Court declared something "unconstitutional," and established the concept of judicial review in the U.S. (the idea that courts may oversee and nullify the actions of another branch of government). The landmark decision helped define the "checks and balances" of the American form of government. In the opinion, Marshall said, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each." Additional case information provided by www.landmarkcases.org.


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500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Copyright © 2014, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved