The President of the United States has the power to appoint
judges to the federal courts. Usually, the President appoints
individuals who are members of his political party or who share his
ideas about politics.
In 1800, John Adams was President. There was an election that year.
Thomas Jefferson, who belonged to another political party, got elected.
There were many positions in the federal government that were empty.
Before he left office, President Adams tried to fill these positions
with people who shared his ideas.
President Adams appointed 58 new people. He asked his Secretary of
State, John Marshall, to deliver the paperwork to these people so they
could start their new jobs. Marshall delivered most of the papers. He
was in a hurry, so he left some of the papers for the new Secretary of
State, James Madison, to deliver. When he came into office, President
Thomas Jefferson told Madison not to deliver the papers to some of the
people Adams had appointed.
One of the individuals who didn't receive his papers was William Marbury. He sued James Madison and tried to get the Supreme Court of the United States to issue a writ of mandamus. A writ
is a court order that forces an official to do something. Marbury
argued that a law passed by Congress (the Judiciary Act of 1789) gave
the Supreme Court of the United States the power to issue this writ. If
the Court issued the writ, Madison would have to deliver the papers.
Then Marbury would become a justice of the peace.
The Supreme Court of the United States had to decide the case. The
new Chief Justice of the United States was John Marshall. He was the
same person who had been unable to deliver the paperwork in the first
Questions to Consider
Why would the President appoint people who are members of his same political party?
Why do you think Thomas Jefferson did not want the people Adams appointed to get their jobs?
Who is Chief Justice John Marshall likely to agree with? Why?
When the Supreme Court of the United States makes a decision, how do
they get people to obey it? In other words, who enforces it? If the
Court issued a writ to force Madison, a member of the executive branch,
to deliver the commission to Marbury, who would enforce it?
How would Chief Justice Marshall and the other members of the Court
look to the public if they made a decision and people refused to obey
According to Article 3, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution,
does the Supreme Court of the United States have original jurisdiction
to issue writs of mandamus?
If Congress passes a law that conflicts with the Constitution, which
one are we required to follow: the new law or the U.S. Constitution?