5 U.S. 137 (1803).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Congress may not pass laws which conflict with the Constitution and, when that happens, “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”

Summary:  A seminal opinion of the United States Supreme Court establishing the principle of judicial review which has since empowered the courts to declare laws unconstitutional.

William Marbury, a Federalist and recipient of a “lame duck” judicial appointment (i.e., justice of the peace) from President John Adams in the post-election days of 1800, sought, in early 1801, to secure from James Madison, the new Secretary of State under President Jefferson, the actual commission of his appointment. When Madison declined, Marbury sought mandamus relief in the Supreme Court pursuant to Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

On February 24, 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall, a fellow Federalist, denied all relief, holding that although only a ministerial duty on Madison’s part was involved, the statute bestowing the judicial power on the Supreme Court in such a case was unconstitutional.

Justice Marshall settled beyond doubt a then-uncertain but extremely important question: whether courts may subject legislative and executive actions to judicial review for their constitutionality.  He answered the question in the affirmative.

The Court held that Congress may not pass laws which conflict with the Constitution. When that happens, Justice Marshall wrote, “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”  In the same opinion, Marshall declared that “(t)he government of the United States . . . (is) a government of laws, and not of men.”  In the United States, in other words, the rule of law, as interpreted by the judiciary, should reign supreme.

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