Why Marbury v. Madison Still Matters

Tuesday, Feb. 24, is the 206th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison, the most important decision the Supreme Court—and perhaps any court—has ever issued. The late chief justice William Rehnquist hailed it as "the most significant single contribution the United States has made to the art of government"; nations around the world look to Marbury as they work to create institutions that will protect the rule of law. As the United States thinks anew about its commitment to these rules, it would serve us well to draw on the wisdom of this landmark decision.

Marbury v. Madison emerged from a fight about "midnight judges" in 1801. In the final days of his presidency, John Adams worked with Federalists in Congress to pack the federal courts and the new capital with Federalist appointees. Days after his inauguration, the new president, Thomas Jefferson (of the rival Democratic-Republican party) noticed a pile of letters sitting on a table at the State Department. Realizing that they were commissions for Federalists that mistakenly had not been sent, Jefferson forbade their delivery. One of the commissions was for an ambitious man named William Marbury.

Marbury sued James Madison, Jefferson's secretary of state, in the Supreme Court, claiming that he had a right to the commission. The court, headed by John Marshall (Jefferson's hated cousin), issued a preliminary order requiring the Jefferson administration to explain its position. Jefferson's Republicans exploded: they shut down the high court for more than a year. Finally, in February 1803, the court issued a unanimous opinion. It blasted Jefferson and Madison for not following the law by blocking delivery of the commissions. But then the court said that the law giving individuals the right to file a lawsuit directly to the Supreme Court was unconstitutional because, under the Constitution, the Supreme Court hears appeals only from other courts. It was the first time it had struck down an act of Congress. Marshall wrote, "It is emphatically the province and duty" of the courts "to say what the law is."

The story of Marbury contains important lessons. First, in the midst of disagreement about the Supreme Court's conclusions in particular cases, we sometimes forget to appreciate the genius of the American system—an independent judiciary with the last word on the law and the Constitution. When we hear an attempt to demonize judges or justices with whom we disagree, we should remember this shared commitment to the rule of law. As retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor emphasizes, our heritage should inspire us to fight attacks on an independent judiciary—whether they come from the left or right.

Second, the Marbury saga contains valuable cautionary tales. Its greatness lies in the fact that Marshall led the court to rise above being a predictable political player. Many expected Marshall to give the Federalists the result they fervently desired—an order compelling the appointment of Federalists like Marbury. Instead, Marshall took the court out of the political dynamic. For President Obama and victorious Democrats in Congress, Marbury is a reminder that being in the political majority doesn't mean you're above being on the wrong side of history on fundamental judicial points. (And for besieged congressional Republicans, the history of the embattled Federalists is similarly instructive: the Federalists' position as unyielding opponents of Jefferson's administration led to their extinction as a political party.)

Last, Marbury points out that greatness may arise from the messiest of political circumstances. Given the patchy, half-built Washington of the early 1800s—and given the unproven court that Marshall inherited—nothing seems more unlikely than that the era would forge a landmark in law and justice that would be an inspiration to the world more than two centuries later. The unlikely tale of Marbury v. Madison gives hope that the chaos and uncertainty of today's struggles may similarly yield unknown breakthroughs that endure for the ages.