Marbury V. Madison: Bicentennial of a Landmark Decision. (Looking at the Law)

By Landman, James H. | Social Education, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Marbury V. Madison: Bicentennial of a Landmark Decision. (Looking at the Law)


Landman, James H., Social Education


The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing; if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?

--Chief Justice John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison (1803)

THE YEAR 2003 will mark the bicentennial year of Marbury v. Madison, one of the most influential opinions of the United States Supreme Court. Authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison affirmed the Court's power of judicial review--its ability to review congressional and executive acts and overturn those it deems unconstitutional. The case also established the federal judiciary's position as a co-equal, independent branch of the federal government.

Marbury v. Madison has had a lasting impact on Supreme Court adjudication, serving as a precedent for some of the Court's most famous (Brown v. Board of Education) and infamous (Dred Scott v. Sandford) decisions. It also underlies current debates over "judicial activism" and "judicial restraint."

The study of Marbury v. Madison opens numerous perspectives on American political and legal history. The case was at the center of debate between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, offering insight into one of our nation's first great political struggles.

The power of judicial review established by Marbury has since defined many of the most significant eras in Supreme Court history--the Civil War, the Lochner-era Court of the early twentieth century, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, and the Court's recent turn toward federalism and states' rights. And the issue of judicial review raises questions central to our understanding of America's constitutional democracy. How is the voice of the people represented in our democracy? What gives the federal judiciary authority to invalidate laws passed by popularly elected representatives, given that federal judges are neither elected nor directly accountable to public opinion? What are the checks on the judiciary's power of judicial review?

This article first discusses Marbury v. Madison in its historical context and then offers a sketch of the opinion's legacy. Marbury v. Madison remains a vital part of Supreme Court jurisprudence and continues to shape our understanding of the powers our Constitution grants--and the limitations it places on--the branches of government at both the state and federal levels. In its bicentennial year, as questions about government power are again at the center of national debate, Marbury v. Madison deserves our study and attention more than ever.

"A Masterwork of Indirection": Marbury v. Madison in its Political Context

Marbury v. Madison has been described as a "masterwork of indirection, a brilliant example of [Chief Justice John] Marshall's capacity to sidestep danger while seeming to court it, to advance in one direction while his opponents are looking in another." (1) As these references to "danger" and "opponents" suggest, Marbury v. Madison was decided in a climate of considerable political risk for the Supreme Court. That the Court managed to emerge from this risk claiming the power of judicial review over congressional and executive actions is remarkable.

Marbury v. Madison has its roots in the waning days of John Adams's presidency and his Federalist Party's domination of Congress. Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans had just defeated Adams and the Federalists in the 1800 elections. The 1800 Republican victory has been seen "as a victory for democracy and as the culmination of a period of popular involvement in politics." (2) This emphasis on populism, combined with the actions of the Federalists in their final days of power, set the stage for a battle between Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists over the federal judiciary.

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