Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Shortly before the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams appointed many judges and justices. While most of these Federalist commissions were delivered before the Democratic-Republican administration took over, some were delayed and declared void. Unable to take office, William Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to force the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to hand over his commission. The Court recognized Marbury's right, but they decided against him because his claim was both inappropriately presented and based on an unconstitutional act of Congress. This ruling solidified the Court's power to review and interpret the laws of the land. These words are from the unanimous opinion written by John Marshall. Read the full text here.
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definitions & notes only words
  1. mandamus
    a court order requiring an official to perform a function
    At the last term, on the affidavits then read and filed with the clerk, a rule was granted in this case requiring the Secretary of State to show cause why a mandamus should not issue directing him to deliver to William Marbury his commission as a justice of the peace for the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia.
  2. expedient
    appropriate to a purpose
    After dividing the district into two counties, the eleventh section of this law enacts, that there shall be appointed in and for each of the said counties such number of discreet persons to be justices of the peace as the President of the United States shall, from time to time, think expedient, to continue in office for five years.
  3. enjoin
    give instructions to or direct somebody to do something
    To grant a commission to a person appointed might perhaps be deemed a duty enjoined by the Constitution.
  4. advert
    make reference to
    The distinction between the appointment and the commission will be rendered more apparent by adverting to that provision in the second section of the second article of the Constitution which authorises Congress to vest by law the appointment of such inferior officers as they think proper in the President alone, in the Courts of law, or in the heads of departments...
  5. commission
    the act of granting authority to undertake certain functions
    In such a case, therefore, the commission and the appointment seem inseparable, it being almost impossible to show an appointment otherwise than by proving the existence of a commission; still, the commission is not necessarily the appointment; though conclusive evidence of it.
  6. inchoate
    only partly in existence; imperfectly formed
    This appointment is evidenced by an open, unequivocal act, and, being the last act required from the person making it, necessarily excludes the idea of its being, so far as it respects the appointment, an inchoate and incomplete transaction.
  7. transmission
    the act of sending a message
    The appointment is the sole act of the President; the transmission of the commission is the sole act of the officer to whom that duty is assigned, and may be accelerated or retarded by circumstances which can have no influence on the appointment.
  8. deprive
    keep from having, keeping, or obtaining
    If it was necessary, then a loss of the commission would lose the office. Not only negligence, but accident or fraud, fire or theft might deprive an individual of his office.
  9. validity
    the quality of having legal force or effectiveness
    If the transmission of a commission be not considered as necessary to give validity to an appointment, still less is its acceptance.
  10. nonentity
    the state of not existing
    As he may resign, so may he refuse to accept; but neither the one nor the other is capable of rendering the appointment a nonentity.
  11. discretion
    power of making choices unconstrained by external agencies
    The discretion of the Executive is to be exercised until the appointment has been made.
  12. vested
    fixed and absolute and without contingency
    Mr. Marbury, then, since his commission was signed by the President and sealed by the Secretary of State, was appointed, and as the law creating the office gave the officer a right to hold for five years independent of the Executive, the appointment was not revocable, but vested in the officer legal rights which are protected by the laws of his country.
  13. emphatically
    without question and beyond doubt
    The Government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men.
  14. appellation
    identifying words by which someone or something is called
    It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.
  15. obloquy
    abusive, malicious, and condemnatory language
    If this obloquy is to be cast on the jurisprudence of our country, it must arise from the peculiar character of the case.
  16. behoove
    be appropriate or necessary
    It behooves us, then, to inquire whether there be in its composition any ingredient which shall exempt from legal investigation or exclude the injured party from legal redress.
  17. amenable
    liable to answer to a higher authority
    Is it to be contended that the heads of departments are not amenable to the laws of their country?
  18. peremptory
    putting an end to all debate or action
    But when the Legislature proceeds to impose on that officer other duties; when he is directed peremptorily to perform certain acts; when the rights of individuals are dependent on the performance of those acts; he is so far the officer of the law, is amenable to the laws for his conduct, and cannot at his discretion, sport away the vested rights of others.
  19. resort
    have recourse to
    But where a specific duty is assigned by law, and individual rights depend upon the performance of that duty, it seems equally clear that the individual who considers himself injured has a right to resort to the laws of his country for a remedy.
  20. delicate
    difficult to handle; requiring great tact
    The intimate political relation, subsisting between the President of the United States and the heads of departments, necessarily renders any legal investigation of the acts of one of those high officers peculiarly irksome, as well as delicate, and excites some hesitation with respect to the propriety of entering into such investigation.
  21. prerogative
    a right reserved exclusively by a person or group
    Impressions are often received without much reflection or examination, and it is not wonderful that, in such a case as this, the assertion by an individual of his legal claims in a court of justice, to which claims it is the duty of that court to attend, should, at first view, be considered by some as an attempt to intrude into the cabinet and to intermeddle with the prerogatives of the Executive.
  22. province
    the proper sphere or extent of your activities
    The province of the Court is solely to decide on the rights of individuals, not to inquire how the Executive or Executive officers perform duties in which they have a discretion.
  23. exempt
    grant an exception or release to
    If one of the heads of departments commits any illegal act under colour of his office by which an individual sustains an injury, it cannot be pretended that his office alone exempts him from being sued in the ordinary mode of proceeding, and being compelled to obey the judgment of the law.
  24. issue
    bring out an official document
    This, then, is a plain case of a mandamus, either to deliver the commission or a copy of it from the record, and it only remains to be inquired: Whether it can issue from this Court.
  25. writ
    a legal document issued by a court or judicial officer
    The act to establish the judicial courts of the United States authorizes the Supreme Court to issue writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.
  26. ordain
    order by virtue of superior authority; decree
    The Constitution vests the whole judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as Congress shall, from time to time, ordain and establish.
  27. jurisdiction
    the right and power to interpret and apply the law
    The Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction.
  28. solicitude
    a feeling of excessive concern
    If the solicitude of the Convention respecting our peace with foreign powers induced a provision that the Supreme Court should take original jurisdiction in cases which might be supposed to affect them, yet the clause would have proceeded no further than to provide for such cases if no further restriction on the powers of Congress had been intended.
  29. criterion
    the ideal in terms of which something can be judged
    It is the essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a cause already instituted, and does not create that case. Although, therefore, a mandamus may be directed to courts, yet to issue such a writ to an officer for the delivery of a paper is, in effect, the same as to sustain an original action for that paper, and therefore seems not to belong to appellate, but to original jurisdiction.
  30. warrant
    show to be reasonable or provide adequate ground for
    The authority, therefore, given to the Supreme Court by the act establishing the judicial courts of the United States to issue writs of mandamus to public officers appears not to be warranted by the Constitution, and it becomes necessary to inquire whether a jurisdiction so conferred can be exercised.
  31. confine
    place limits on
    The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed are of equal obligation.
  32. paramount
    having superior power and influence
    The Constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.
  33. repugnant
    offensive to the mind
    Certainly all those who have framed written Constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be that an act of the Legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.
  34. expound
    add details, as to an account or idea
    It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret that rule.
  35. controvert
    be resistant to
    Those, then, who controvert the principle that the Constitution is to be considered in court as a paramount law are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that courts must close their eyes on the Constitution, and see only the law.
  36. ex post facto
    affecting things past
    The Constitution declares that "no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed."
  37. contemplate
    reflect deeply on a subject
    From these and many other selections which might be made, it is apparent that the framers of the Constitution contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the Legislature.
  38. administer
    supervise or be in charge of
    I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich; and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent on me as according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States.
  39. incumbent
    necessary as a duty or responsibility; morally binding
    I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich; and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent on me as according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States.
  40. bound
    confined or obligated by an oath
    Thus, the particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written Constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.
Created on February 20, 2017 (updated September 11, 2019)

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