Constitutional Law I, Pages 7–15

Marbury v. Madison

Supreme Court of the United States, 1803


Marbury was appointed as a justice of the peace for DC, but the Secretary of State left office before delivering this appointment. Madison, the replacement Secretary of State under President Jefferson refused to deliver the appointments, so Marbury filed suit against him.


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  1. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
  2. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?
  3. If they do afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?


  • If a person is appointed to an office, he is entitled to that office. Marbury was appointed by President Adams when he signed the commission, so Marbury is entitled to his commission.

  • There is no point in having a law if there is no remedy for when that law is broken. The Constitution gives the president certain powers that he has full discretion over and is only accountable for in elections. He may appoint others to help him in exercising these powers in conformity with his orders, which makes their actions his and therefore without a check on them. These powers respect the nation, not individual rights. The officers are also to do what the legislature says when it passes laws saying so. When these duties do concern individuals' rights, the officers cannot deprive people of their rights at their own discretion.

  • The president has the power to appoint officers at his own discretion, but that is all that his power is. Once he selects someone, that person has rights to that position which are protected by law. If the president has not been given power to remove the person, he cannot otherwise extinguish his rights. Marbury therefore deserves a remedy for this violation. The Supreme Court is authorized by law to issue writs of mandamus to any governmental officer. Thus, one could be granted here if the law granting the Supreme Court this power is valid.

    Issuing a writ of mandamus is practically the same thing as sustaining an original action for the paper. Such a power therefore belongs to a court with original jurisdiction. The law granting the Supreme Court the power to issue a writ in this case therefore goes against the Constitution, which only grants it appellate jurisdiction in such cases. If the legislature can pass laws contrary to the Constitution, then the Constitution itself is meaningless. Likewise, if Congress cannot void an unconstitutional law, but is bound to follow it, then Congress can again ignore the Constitution. Congress's job is to interpret the law, and if two laws conflict, it must pick one to follow. That one should be the Constitution.


  • Marbury has a right to the job.

  • There is no remedy against officers using discretion in their executive duties, but there are legal remedies for officers not doing duties assigned them by the legislature.

  • No, the law permitting writs of mandamus is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court does not have original jurisdiction permitting it to rule on this case.


Marbury never got his appointment. He presumably could have refiled in a lower court, but district courts did not have jurisdiction over disputes of federal law and state courts might not have thought to be able to fulfill his request either.