Decision: February 24, 1803, 4-0
Summary at Oyez
It’s 1801. Thomas Jefferson has just beaten John Adams in the presidential election, so Adams is in a lame-duck session.
Congress passes the Judiciary Act of 1801, which adds a bunch of courts (and vacant judgeships) to the American judicial system.
Adams, wanting to leave people in his party in power, appoints a shitload of judges to these positions, riiiiight before he leaves office.
So, the official statement that says a judge is… a judge is called a commission. It validates the appointment and makes everything official. All these new dudes needed them ASAP, before Adams left.
And who had to deliver them? John Marshall, the then-Secretary of State, who belonged to Adams’s party. He put his official seal on them, but then he was like,
And he left to become Chief Justice, assuming the new Secretary of State under TJ would finish delivering them.
…RIGHT, he’s from the other party, he’ll totally deliver the sole piece of paper that determines if some last-minute sketchball appointees actually get their jobs, TOTALLY.
When TJ takes office, he orders Levi Lincoln, the acting Secretary of State, not to deliver the commissions. It’s one of the first things he does. Cold, but come on, you saw it coming.
One of the not-judges left without a commission is William Marbury. He’s pissed.
He and some other jilted judges run directly to SCOTUS and file a writ of mandamus, which is the legal equivalent of “mommmmm tell him to stooooooooppppp”
The legal battle commences, and SCOTUS makes this whole thing really involved.
SO. Article III of the constitution, which deals with the judicial branch, has this long-ass list of what “counts” as “original jurisdiction,” meaning stuff you can take straight to SCOTUS without going through a lower court first.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 adds writs of mandamus to the “I count” list, which is Marbury’s argument for filing the writ in the first place.
If SCOTUS is to decide that Marbury’s writ (his search for “legal remedy”) shouldn’t “count” as having original jurisdiction, it’s giving itself power to overrule Congress.
SCOTUS, through John Marshall (same guy from before) says the Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflict. To fix this, he laid out the court’s idea of the power of judicial review: if a law conflicts with the Constitution, the judicial system has to go with the Constitution, and so the problem-law will be void.
At the end of the day, SCOTUS found that Marbury was entitled to his commission, as a matter of law. However, his filing a writ of mandamus straight to SCOTUS wouldn’t get him anything, because the Judiciary Act of 1789 was declared invalid and the writ didn’t “count.” Sorry, Marbury.
So, to sum up: political drama gave the Supreme Court an opportunity to grant itself power of judicial review.