Marbury v. Madison | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

Marbury v. Madison is a landmark case in United States law that established the principle of judicial review.

In 1803, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that would shape the nation’s legal system. The conflict began with William Marbury, who had been selected by President John Adams to be a justice of the peace. This appointment occurred as President Adams was nearing the end of his term in office.

Conflict: Clash of Two Administrations

After President Adams’ term, Thomas Jefferson took office. The new administration saw a shift in power. Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison, became a pivotal player in this drama. Madison chose not to deliver Marbury’s commission. This decision led Marbury to take legal action to obtain the position he believed was rightfully his. This set in motion a lawsuit that would go down in history.

The Supreme Court Steps In

Marbury’s claim reached the highest court in the nation – the Supreme Court. After deliberation, the justices reached a significant decision. They recognized that Marbury had a right to his commission. However, they stated that the part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which granted the Supreme Court the power to issue a writ of mandamus, was against the Constitution.

Impact: The Emergence of Judicial Review

This was a groundbreaking moment that led to the birth of judicial review. Judicial review is the ability of the Supreme Court to analyze and potentially overturn laws made by Congress if they are found to be unconstitutional. It introduced a whole new dynamic into the U.S. legal system and made the Supreme Court a much more powerful entity.


Marbury v. Madison has been remembered as one of the most influential cases in American history. Its impact is profound because it confirmed the Supreme Court’s role as an equal partner among the three branches of government. It maintained the system of checks and balances, ensuring no single branch holds too much power. This system has played a crucial role in safeguarding the democratic principles upon which the United States was founded.

This historic case helped create a balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The ruling solidified the concept of judicial review, empowering the Supreme Court to assess and nullify laws deemed unconstitutional. In the end, the legacy of Marbury v. Madison continues to influence our understanding of the Constitution and the functioning of our government today.

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Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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