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Background

John Adams, a Federalist, won the Presidential election in 1796. Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republic, won the Vice-Presidency. The Federalists controlled both the executive and legislative branches at that time. By the next election, in 1800, Federalist policies had angered enough people that Adams lost the election badly.

Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Democratic-Republicans, received an equal number of electoral votes, so the final decision as to who would assume which role fell to the House of Representatives. Jefferson, championed by a popular Alexander Hamilton, won the Presidency. With both Presidential and Vice-Presidential offices filled by Democratic-Republicans, as well as the majority of seats in both the House and Senate, the new administration portended a radical shift in the government's ideology.

Before the new administration could take office, however, the Sixth Congress passed two pieces of legislation in early 1801 that expanded the federal court system. The first, The Judiciary Act of 1801, which passed February 13, 1801, reduced the size of the Supreme Court from 6 members to 5, by attrition, to impede Jefferson's ability to change the composition of the Court (which was entirely Federalist at that time). It also relieved the Justices of their "circuit riding" responsibilities, reorganizing the lower courts into six circuits, and creating positions for 16 new judges.

The second piece of legislation, the Organic Act of 1801 (aka "An Act Concerning the District of Columbia"), which passed on February 27, 1801, is more directly relevant to the Marbury v. Madison case. In the Organic Act, Congress formally incorporated land ceded to the federal government by Virginia and Maryland into the District of Columbia, dividing the territory into two "cities": Alexandria, which operated under Virginia law; and Georgetown, which operated under Maryland law. This created a number of lower-level judicial positions (the most commonly referenced number is 42), including "...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."

The out-going President, John Adams, in a desperate attempt to bolster Federalist influence, quickly appointed 42 members of his own party to the justice of the peace positions, and 16 Federalist judges to head the Circuit courts created by the new Judiciary Act of 1801 (passed on February 13, 1801). These later became known as the "Midnight Judges," after the fact that they were nominated March 2, and confirmed by the Senate on March 3, 1801, Adams' final day in office.

John Marshall, who was Secretary of State under Adams, was responsible for completing the paperwork and delivering the official "commissions" to each of the newly appointed judges, but the administration ended before he could undertake this task. Adams "Midnight Judges" were nominated on March 2, 1801 and confirmed by the Senate on March 3, 1801. Although Marshall worked late into the night completing the registration of appointments and affixing the official Presidential seal, there was no time for Marshall to deliver the paperwork before he and Adams left office on March 4.

Marshall, himself, had been newly confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (February 4, 1801), but agreed to remain in office as Secretary of State until the administration changed.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, there were no members of his party in the federal judiciary (not surprising because the Democratic-Republican party had formed only recently from a group formerly known as the Anti-federalists). In fact, virtually the entire judiciary, including every member of the Supreme Court, was Federalist, a legacy of both John Adams and George Washington. Jefferson decided to take corrective measures.

First, he reduced the number of justice of the peace appointments from 42 to 30, ostensibly as a matter of economy. Of the remaining 30 appointments, Jefferson allowed 25 Federalist appointees to keep their positions, and nominated members of his own party to fill the remaining five slots.

William Marbury, whom Adams had appointed justice of the peace for the District of Columbia, was one of the 12 whose commissions were eliminated.

After waiting in vain Marbury decided to seek actions from the courts. Searching through statute books, he came across Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which authorized the Supreme Court "to issue writs of mandamus." A writ of mandamus is a court order directing an official, such as Secretary of State, to perform a duty about which the official has no discretion, such as delivering a commission.

Dilemma

This action put newly appointed chief justice Marshall in the position to make a decision. On the one hand, if he sided with Marbury, then Madison would most likely ignore such a decision. The court would be powerless and its prestige, already low, would suffer a fatal blow.

Marshall tested this theory by issuing an order requiring an explanation from Madison as to why Marshall should not issue a writ of mandamus. Madison ignored the order, an insult to the judiciary, which was being treated as a less-than-equal branch of the new government.

On the other hand, by refusing to issue the writ, the judges would appear to support President Jefferson and the Republicans.

On February 24, 1803, The Supreme Court delivered its opinion. The first part was as expected. Marbury was entitled to his commission and Madison should deliver it to him.

Then came the surprise, Marshall stated that Section 13 is contrary to Article III of the constitution, and went on to explained why the court has no jurisdiction to enforce an unconstitutional law. Marshall gained the much more important power to declare laws passed by Congress unconstitutional. It was a brilliant move.

Case Citation:

Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)

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Q: What was the dilemma faced by the US Supreme Court when deciding the case of Marbury v. Madison?
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If the Supreme Court decided that Marbury was entitled to his commission how could it be sure that the Executive branch would deliver it?

They couldn't; that created a significant dilemma for Chief Justice John Marshall.The Supreme Court has no enforcement power over its decisions, so there was no way they could compel Madison to deliver Marbury's commission, which may be one reason Marshall denied the Court had original jurisdiction over the matter. If the Court issued the requested writ of mandamus, and Madison refused to comply (a theory tested when Madison refused to answer the Court's inquiry as to why it should not issue a writ for the commission), it would weaken the power of the Judicial branch.When a Court decision involves a question of documented law, the courts generally make a ruling, then remand the case back to the Circuit Court (US Court of Appeals) or state supreme court to ensure the decision is carried out. Otherwise, only respect for the Court and established protocol encourages compliance.Case Citation:Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)


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Related questions

What was the primary dilemma in Marbury v Madison?

Marbury vs. Madison was the first time that the supreme court ruled that a federal law was unconstitutional. so the problem was in the court trying to establish their constitutional right to review congressional law and overturn a law they found to be unconstitutional. This was the first time that we found the supreme court asserting their constitutional right to review congressional acts.Case Citation:Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)


If the Supreme Court decided that Marbury was entitled to his commission how could it be sure that the Executive branch would deliver it?

They couldn't; that created a significant dilemma for Chief Justice John Marshall.The Supreme Court has no enforcement power over its decisions, so there was no way they could compel Madison to deliver Marbury's commission, which may be one reason Marshall denied the Court had original jurisdiction over the matter. If the Court issued the requested writ of mandamus, and Madison refused to comply (a theory tested when Madison refused to answer the Court's inquiry as to why it should not issue a writ for the commission), it would weaken the power of the Judicial branch.When a Court decision involves a question of documented law, the courts generally make a ruling, then remand the case back to the Circuit Court (US Court of Appeals) or state supreme court to ensure the decision is carried out. Otherwise, only respect for the Court and established protocol encourages compliance.Case Citation:Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)


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Is a situation where two or more factors conflict in deciding the right course?

Yes, a situation where two or more factors conflict in deciding the right course is known as a dilemma. It presents a difficult choice between two alternatives, both equally undesirable or unappealing. Resolving a dilemma often requires careful consideration of values, consequences, and priorities.


What was Marbury v. Madison?

John Adams lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 Presidential election. Adams was a member of the Federalist party, while Jefferson was a member of the Democratic-Republican party that considered themselves anti-Federalist in their thinking.The Federalists were losing power in the US government, so President Adams attempted to fill up the Judicial branch with members of his own party right before leaving office. One group of 42 men were appointed as justices of the peace for the newly incorporated Washington, DC, territory. Because the appointments occurred during the last two days of Adams' term of office, the paperwork wasn't completed in time to allow the commissions to be delivered to the justices of the peace so they could start work. John Marshall, who was both Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during the last month of Adams' administration, assumed James Madison, the new Secretary of State, would have the paperwork delivered.The new President, Thomas Jefferson, found the commissions on a desk in the Secretary of State's office before Madison arrived in town. Jefferson thought Adams appointed too many people, and also wanted to balance the appointments by replacing some with members of his own party. Approximately seventeen of the original commissions were discarded in the process.William Marbury was one of the men who never received his commission. He filed suit with the US Supreme Court, asking that a writ of mandamus (a court order demanding an official take a specific legal action) be issued to James Madison, because the Secretary of State was responsible for delivering the paperwork.Chief Justice John Marshall sent an order asking Madison to show cause why the Court shouldn't issue the writ, but Madison ignored Marshall. This created a dilemma, because Madison's behavior indicated he wouldn't cooperate with the Supreme Court, which could have weakened the Judicial branch's role in government.When the case finally came to trial in 1803, Marshall came up with a brilliant strategy. The opinion of the Court stated that Marbury was entitled to his commission, but that the Supreme Court didn't have original jurisdiction (the right to hear a case for the first time) over Marbury's suit because the Constitution didn't give the Court the power to issue writs of mandamus against government officials. Marshall decided Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional because Congress gave the Supreme Court power to issue writs of mandamus, which wasn't part of the power assigned to the Court under original jurisdiction in Article III of the Constitution. This would have had the effect of changing the Constitution through simple legislation, which is prohibited.Marshall said the Supreme Court didn't have authority to force Madison to deliver Marbury's papers, and that Marbury would have to refile his case in a lower court (which never happened).The decision in Marbury v. Madison is historic because this was the first time the Supreme Court declared an Act of Congress unconstitutional. In doing so, Marshall affirmed the Court's right of judicial review, the power to evaluate laws that are part of a case under consideration to determine whether the law is constitutional. This ruling strengthened the Judicial branch of government, and made obvious that the power of judicial review is a check on the actions of Congress (and the President).Case Citiation:Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)For more information, see Related Questions, below.Gave the Supreme Court the power of judicial review.Marbury v. Madison is the landmark case in United States lawThe significance of Marbury v. Madison, (1803), is that it affirmed the Judicial Branch's (specifically the Supreme Court's) right of judicial review, setting a precedent for future cases, strengthening the Supreme Court, and establishing the Judicial Branch as a co-equal part of government.Judicial review is the power of the Court to evaluate challenged legislation to determine its constitutionality, and to nullify any laws they find unconstitutional.AnswerMarbury v. Madison is probably the most important case as far as defining the powers of the judicial branch. This is the case where the Supreme Court created the concept of "judicial review". This means that in a proper lawsuit which alleges that a particular law or Presidential action conflicts with the provisions of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to review that law or action and declare it to be unconstitutional and and of no force and effect.Thus, the judiciary can nullify a law if it finds it unconstitutional. At that time, some people felt that the Supreme Court had no power to nullify an action by Congress or the President. Not one word of the Constitution specifically gives the Judiciary this power. Many felt this would make the judicial branch more powerful than the other branches. Never the less, it has always been the function of the judiciary to interpret laws and decide if one conflicted with another.Deciding whether laws conflict with the Constitution is no different. This power of judicial review is a check that the judicial branch has on the other branches, even though the Constitution did not give it to the judicial branch in so many words. The later case of Fletcher v. Peck confirmed that judicial review extended to state laws as well.Case Citation:Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)Jefferson ordered Madison to not allow the finishing process to take place confirming Marbury as a judge.


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Dilemma is a noun.


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