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MARBURY V. MADISON (1803) DECISION

Chief Justice John Marshall himself wrote the opinion of the Court announcing the decision for a unanimous Court. Marshall begins his opinion by seeming to lecture President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison, telling them that they know Marbury is entitled to his job. In other words, the Court reasons, the answer to the first question is “Yes.” He then reminds everyone that every individual must be able to claim the protection of the law when that individual’s rights have been violated. The law, Marshall states, must provide a remedy for the violation because if it does not, then the U. S. is not a government of laws as we have claimed. One of the first duties of government, he asserts, is providing a remedy for a violation of rights. The Court thus answers “Yes” to the second question. Thus far in his opinion, it appears that the Court is ruling for Marbury.

Marshall now turns to answer the third and most important question, and in the process, the Court decides something that no one had even argued or knew was involved. He begins by reminding everyone that the Constitution is not only law but also that it is the supreme law of the land according to Article VI, Paragraph 2 and that it cannot be changed merely by an act of Congress. Then he notes that an act of the legislative branch contrary to the Constitution is void and that judges take an oath to recognize, interpret, and enforce the Constitution. Article III of the Constitution, Marshall correctly points out, specifically spells out the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, limiting it to “cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party.”

Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, he asserts, under which Marbury’s case was brought directly to the Supreme Court under its original jurisdiction, adds to the Court’s original jurisdiction and is therefore in conflict with Article III of the Constitution. Consequently, Marshall concludes, according to Article VI, Paragraph 2, Section 13 is unconstitutional. As a result, he adds, the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction over the case, and without jurisdiction, no court can hear and decide a case. In what thus amounts to the Court’s only legally binding decision, the Court dismisses Marbury’s case. In other words, the answer to the third question is “No.” In the process of answering this third question, Marshall spells out what may well be the most significant outcome of the case: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”