MARSHALL, C.J., Opinion of the Court
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
5 U.S. 137
Marbury v. Madison
Argued: — Decided:
Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question whether an act repugnant to the Constitution can become the law of the land is a question deeply interesting to the United States, but, happily, not of an intricacy proportioned to its interest. It seems only necessary to recognise certain principles, supposed to have been long and well established, to decide it.
That the people have an original right to establish for their future government such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected. The exercise of this original right is a very great exertion; nor can it nor ought it to be frequently repeated. The principles, therefore, so established are deemed fundamental. And as the authority from which they proceed, is supreme, and can seldom act, they are designed to be permanent.
This original and supreme will organizes the government and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments.
The Government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the Legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the Constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained? 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. It is a proposition too plain to be contested that the Constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it, or that the Legislature may alter the Constitution by an ordinary act.
Between these alternatives there is no middle ground. 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.
If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law; if the latter part be true, then written Constitutions are absurd attempts on the part of the people to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.
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.
This theory is essentially attached to a written Constitution, and is consequently to be considered by this Court as one of the fundamental principles of our society. It is not, therefore, to be lost sight of in the further consideration of this subject.
If an act of the Legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void, does it, notwithstanding its invalidity, bind the Courts and oblige them to give it effect? Or, in other words, though it be not law, does it constitute a rule as operative as if it was a law? This would be to overthrow in fact what was established in theory, and would seem, at first view, an absurdity too gross to be insisted on. It shall, however, receive a more attentive consideration.
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. If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each.
So, if a law be in opposition to the Constitution, if both the law and the Constitution apply to a particular case, so that the Court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the Constitution, or conformably to the Constitution, disregarding the law, the Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.
If, then, the Courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the Legislature, the Constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.
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.
This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written Constitutions. It would declare that an act which, according to the principles and theory of our government, is entirely void, is yet, in practice, completely obligatory. It would declare that, if the Legislature shall do what is expressly forbidden, such act, notwithstanding the express prohibition, is in reality effectual. It would be giving to the Legislature a practical and real omnipotence with the same breath which professes to restrict their powers within narrow limits. It is prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.
That it thus reduces to nothing what we have deemed the greatest improvement on political institutions — a written Constitution, would of itself be sufficient, in America where written Constitutions have been viewed with so much reverence, for rejecting the construction. But the peculiar expressions of the Constitution of the United States furnish additional arguments in favour of its rejection.
The judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the Constitution.
Could it be the intention of those who gave this power to say that, in using it, the Constitution should not be looked into? That a case arising under the Constitution should be decided without examining the instrument under which it arises?
This is too extravagant to be maintained.
In some cases then, the Constitution must be looked into by the judges. And if they can open it at all, what part of it are they forbidden to read or to obey?
There are many other parts of the Constitution which serve to illustrate this subject.
It is declared that “no tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any State.” Suppose a duty on the export of cotton, of tobacco, or of flour, and a suit instituted to recover it. Ought judgment to be rendered in such a case? ought the judges to close their eyes on the Constitution, and only see the law?
The Constitution declares that “no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed.”
If, however, such a bill should be passed and a person should be prosecuted under it, must the Court condemn to death those victims whom the Constitution endeavours to preserve?
“No person,” says the Constitution, “shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”
Here. the language of the Constitution is addressed especially to the Courts. It prescribes, directly for them, a rule of evidence not to be departed from. If the Legislature should change that rule, and declare one witness, or a confession out of court, sufficient for conviction, must the constitutional principle yield to the legislative act?
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.
Why otherwise does it direct the judges to take an oath to support it? This oath certainly applies in an especial manner to their conduct in their official character. How immoral to impose it on them if they were to be used as the instruments, and the knowing instruments, for violating what they swear to support!
The oath of office, too, imposed by the Legislature, is completely demonstrative of the legislative opinion on this subject. It is in these words:
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.
Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the Constitution of the United States if that Constitution forms no rule for his government? if it is closed upon him and cannot be inspected by him?
If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe or to take this oath becomes equally a crime.
It is also not entirely unworthy of observation that, in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the Constitution itself is first mentioned, and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall be made in pursuance of the Constitution, have that rank.
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.
The rule must be discharged.
* * *
Some background from Wikipedia – read at link below for embedded links and full report:
Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court formed the basis for the exercise of judicial review in the United States under Article III of the Constitution. The landmark decision helped define the boundary between the constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches of the American form of government.
The case resulted from a petition to the Supreme Court by William Marbury, who had been appointed by President John Adams as Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia but whose commission was not subsequently delivered. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to force the new Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the documents. The Court, with John Marshall as Chief Justice, found firstly that Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was both illegal and remediable. Nonetheless, the Court stopped short of compelling Madison (by writ of mandamus) to hand over Marbury’s commission, instead holding that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that enabled Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III established. The petition was therefore denied.
In the presidential election of 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams, becoming the third President of the United States. Although the election was decided on February 17, 1801, Jefferson did not take office until March 4, 1801. Until that time, outgoing president Adams and the Federalist-controlled 6th Congress were still in power. During this lame-duck session, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. This Act modified the Judiciary Act of 1789 in establishing ten new district courts, expanding the number of circuit courts from three to six, and adding additional judges to each circuit, giving the President the authority to appoint Federal judges and justices of the peace. The act also reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, effective upon the next vacancy in the Court.
On March 3, just before his term was to end, Adams, in an attempt to stymie the incoming Democratic-Republican Congress and administration, appointed 16 Federalist circuit judges and 42 Federalist justices of the peace to offices created by the Judiciary Act of 1801. These appointees, the infamous “Midnight Judges”, included William Marbury, a prosperous financier in Maryland. An ardent Federalist, Marbury was active in Maryland politics and a vigorous supporter of the Adams presidency. He had been appointed to the position of justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. The term for a justice of the peace was five years, and they were “authorized to hold courts and cognizance of personal demands of the value of 20 dollars.”
On the following day, the appointments were approved en masse by the Senate; however, to go into effect, the commissions had to be delivered to those appointed. This task fell to John Marshall, who, even though recently appointed Chief Justice of the United States, continued as the acting Secretary of State at President Adams’s personal request.
While a majority of the commissions were delivered, it proved impossible for all of them to be delivered before Adams’s term as president expired. As these appointments were routine in nature, Marshall assumed the new Secretary of State James Madison would see they were delivered, since “they had been properly submitted and approved, and were, therefore, legally valid appointments.”On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President. As soon as he was able, President Jefferson ordered Levi Lincoln, who was the new administration’s Attorney General and acting Secretary of State until the arrival of James Madison, not to deliver the remaining appointments. Without the commissions, the appointees were unable to assume the offices and duties to which they had been appointed. In Jefferson’s opinion, the undelivered commissions, not having been delivered on time, were void.
The newly sworn-in Democratic-Republican 7th Congress immediately set about voiding the Judiciary Act of 1801 with their own Judiciary Act of 1802 which reversed the act of 1801 so that the Judicial branch once again operated under the dictates of the original Judiciary Act of 1789. In addition, it replaced the Court’s two annual sessions with one session to begin on the first Monday in February, and “canceled the Supreme Court term scheduled for June of that year  … seeking to delay a ruling on the constitutionality of the repeal act until months after the new judicial system was in operation.”
(snip) Read all here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marbury_v._Madison
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