Thursday July 24, 2014
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05-035 Mr. Justice Marshall II

Thursday Jul 24, 2014

Lead: In Marbury v. Madison Chief Justice John Marshall made the federal court system an equal partner in national affairs. Some would come to say he made it more than just first among equals.

Intro: A Moment In Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: In 1803 Marshall gave teeth to the Federal court system by declaring a law passed by Congress, signed by the President, to be unconstitutional. He established the principal of judicial review. Just before leaving office in 1801 President John Adams had appointed quite a few members of his party, the Federalists, as judges. One of these so-called "midnight judges" was John Marshall; another was William Marbury, appointed Justice of the Peace of the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed him, but his commission was not delivered. The new president, Thomas Jefferson refused to deliver it. Marbury sued to force its delivery. Such an order was a writ of mandamus, a command order that originated as a royal decree in England where the king could issue an order commanding someone to do something. Some Americans bristled at this arbitrary executive power, but in the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress gave the Supreme Court the right to issue writs of mandamus.

In his elegant decision in Marbury vs. Secretary of State James Madison, Marshall ruled that Marbury was entitled to his commission but that the Supreme Court could not issue a writ of mandamus since the Constitution did not specifically allow it. In denying the Court had one type of power, Marshall had given it an even more important one. The Court could nullify unconstitutional congressional acts. The precedent was established and in law, precedent is just about everything.

The producer of A Moment In Time is Steve Clark. At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.


Hobson, Charles F. The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Stites, Francis N. John Marshall: Defender of the Constitution.

Boston: Little, Brown Publishing Company, 1981.

Wernick, Robert. "Mr. Justice Marshall Takes the Law in Hand,"

Smithsonian 29 (8, November 1998): 156-175.

Copyright 2014 by Dan Roberts Enterprises, Inc.


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