Between 1800 and 1835, the Supreme Court dealt with many cases of great importance to the United States of America. John Marshall served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during this time. The case of Marbury vs. Madison, in 1803, was one of the most crucial court cases and decisions made in this time period. During the early 1800's, the Supreme Court had none of the power and authority that it holds today.
Very few cases of importance had ever been brought into the Court, and the Court had little precedent on which to base its decisions. The decision that John Marshall and the Supreme Court made concerning Marbury vs. Madison increased the power of the national government and determined the Constitution to be the superior law of the land. Shortly before leaving office in 1800, President John Adams appointed forty-two justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. All of the commissions for the justices of peace had been signed and sent out before the newly elected President, Thomas Jefferson, took office, but not all of them had been delivered. One of the men who had been appointed by Adams and had not received his commission was a man named William Marbury. Marbury sued under a writ of mandamus in order to collect his commission.
When the new Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to give Marbury his commission, Marbury brought a suit in the Supreme Court against Madison, stating that withholding the signed and sealed commission was illegal. (Lawson 16) In the case of Marbury vs. Madison, the first thing the Court did was to declare the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional. Chief Justice Marshall dismissed the case because Marbury had sued under a writ of mandamus, and the Constitution did not include such writs in its list of powers of the Supreme Court. Marshall claimed that, even though the Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, Congress could not enlarge the powers of the Supreme Court. Consequently, Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional. (Crum 81) Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to hear cases such as this because its main purpose was to hear cases brought before it on appeal from lower courts.
Chief Justice Marshall's decision in this case stated that Marbury had the right to his justice of the peace commission and that withholding it would be acting in violation of the law of the land. Yet, since Marshall had earlier declared the Judiciary Act unconstitutional and, therefore, the Supreme Court had no power to issue a writ of mandamus, the Court could not force Madison to issue Marbury his commission. Marbury lost his case, and the Supreme Court had the victory. (Weiss 21) Marbury vs. Madison was significant because it was the first time that the Supreme Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional. The Court declared its right to determine when a law was constitutional and when it was not, and also assumed its right of judicial review. This case allowed the Court to play an active role in defending the constitutional rights of individual citizens.
Marbury vs. Madison established the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The outcome of Marbury vs. Madison had an everlasting effect on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court immediately increased its stature, and emerged as the third powerful division of American government, along with the executive and legislative branches. The right to judicial review is one that not even the President and Congress can override.
Judicial review is now the Supreme Court's most vital check on the other branches of the government. Chief Justice Marshall made it clear when he presided over the Marbury vs. Madison case that federal power needed to prevail over state power if the two were ever in conflict. (Lawson 19) The case of Dred Scott vs. Sanford, in 1857, was the next case in which an act of Congress was ruled as unconstitutional. This case determined that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and declared it null and void. After the Marbury case, the Supreme Court did not play a minor role in the nation's government as it had before.
The Supreme Court was on its was to becoming the most powerful court in the world. With the challenges brought to the Court in cases such as the Marbury one, the Court was able to keep the Constitution up to date. The Marbury vs. Madison case is still referred to in Supreme Court cases today because of the major impacts that it had in establishing the reality of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The challenges and decisions brought forth during the Marbury case will forever be remembered as the turning point of the authority and influence of the Supreme Court on American government.