Supreme Court Reigns Supreme
Although Jefferson commenced his first term as president by proposing to the Federalists that they bury the hatchet, he was not above manipulating the law to prevent a group of Federalist judges, appointed by John Adams, from assuming office. After his inauguration, Jefferson discovered that, during Adams’ final days as president, the former president had signed a number of judicial appointments but had not distributed them. Not wanting to place Federalists in important circuit court and federal court positions, Jefferson decided not to distribute the signed appointments.
When one of the appointees, William Marbury, failed to receive his commission as justice of the peace for Washington, D.C., he petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus—an order to Secretary of State James Madison to distribute the commissions. This order created a critical dilemma for Chief justice John Marshall; if he issued the writ, he would put the court in direct opposition to the president. If Marshall denied the writ, he would dilute the power of the Supreme Court by appearing to bow to the president’s wishes. Refusing to be impaled on the horns of the dilemma, Marshall found that Marbury had been wrongfully deprived of his commission, but he also declared that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, under which Marbury had filed his suit, was unconstitutional. Section 13 added to the Supreme Court’s “original jurisdiction” by improperly allowing into the Supreme Court a case that should be heard by a lower court. Marbury’s suit was thrown out, a political crisis averted, and-most important of all-the right of the Supreme Court to “judicial review” was established.
Ever since the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court has functioned to set aside statutes of Congress the Court judged unconstitutional. The case represented the birth of an extraordinary federal power, which made complete the definition of the system of “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution had created among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.