Marbury v. Madison

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13464

Despite being included as one of the three branches of government, the role of the Supreme Court was unclear until this 1803 court case. Find out how it defined the judiciary branch.


United States, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • How could one court case alter the function of the entire Supreme Court?

Keep reading to find out!

Election of 1800

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

The presidential election of 1800 saw Thomas Jefferson running against the incumbent president John Adams. When Jefferson won, Adams focused on having a lasting impact before he left office.

Because inauguration was originally in the month of March, President Adams had much more time to focus on his legacy. One of the major ways presidents can affect change after they are gone is by appointing judges to federal courts across the country.

quill pen and parchment paper

As a Federalist, Adams sought to install as many Federalist judges into court positions as possible before leaving office. He spent the last few hours of his presidency appointing 45 new judges. This had to be done by delivering the letters of promotion to each judge individually, which was impossible to do in just one night.

When Jefferson was sworn into office the next day, he refused to finish delivering the letters. At the time, it was unclear whether Jefferson was breaking the law by not fulfilling these appointments.

The Writ of Mandamus


While some judges received their letters, many were aware of their appointment but did not receive it in time.

One of these unfortunate judges was William Marbury, who was certain now-President Jefferson could not keep him from his appointment simply because Jefferson wanted to install Democrat-Republican judges.

Marbury fought this by utilizing the Judiciary Act of 1789. Passed by Congress, this act gave the Supreme Court the power to mandate nearly anything be carried out if required.

Therefore, William Marbury requested a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court mandating that Secretary of State James Madison deliver his letter of appointment. A writ of mandamus is when a court orders an inferior government official to fulfill his or her job requirements.

John Marshall

John Marshall statue

John Marshall was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but he was also the man charged with delivering these very same letters to the court appointees while Adams was still in office.

For this reason, Marshall wanted Marbury to receive his appointment; however, his decision had to consider much more than his personal political preferences.

Marshall knew it was likely Jefferson would simply ignore any writ that was ordered. This refusal to listen to the Supreme Court would likely forever make the judiciary branch the least important of the three.

As the Chief Justice, Marshall was not willing to risk the deterioration of the branch just to help out a judge he supported.

man entering a maze

John Marshall was in a very difficult situation because he knew what was right but needed to consider the longevity of the Supreme Court as well.

As you head into the Got It? section, think about what you would do to remedy your personal convictions and concern for the government.

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