Marbury v. Madison
Judicial review is the ability of an appropriate court (e.g. a state superior court or the Supreme Court of the United States) to determine the validity, or constitutionality, of a law or legislative act.
This precept of law was established in the United States in 1803 when William Marbury sued Secretary of State James Madison in the precedent-setting Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison for not fully vesting Marbury’s appointment as a Justice of the Peace (essentially, a judge) by withholding the appropriate documents. More specifically, Marbury asked the Court to compel Madison to perform his duty and deliver the papers.
At this period in history the United States was still defining the powers of the branches of government yet was not above the twists and turns of political motivations.
The Court decided, in a 4-0 vote, that Marbury was right, Madison should perform his duty but that the Court was not the body to compel him to do so because, it said, the Judiciary Act of 1789 did not vest that power in the Court. The Chief Justice, John Marshall, wrote in the Court’s decision that the Judiciary Act conflicted with the Constitution and the Court’s primary duty was to follow the Constitution. This established the Court’s role in judiciary review, or determining the constitutionality of laws.
Wealthy aristocrat William Marbury had been named to the District of Columbia court by President John Adams as one of many “midnight appointments” just before a rival politician, President-elect Thomas Jefferson, was about to take office. The lame duck Congress had passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 in its final session, creating many new courts and therefore judge/Justice of the Peace positions, including the one Marbury was appointed to. Jefferson opposed this expansion of the judiciary and directed his underling, Secretary of State Madison, not to deliver the necessary paperwork establishing the position. Thus unfilled positions would be void, it was believed.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the preliminary courts of the United States and their roles. It was signed by President George Washington and allowed the Supreme Court to issue writs of mandamus which are orders to public officials to carry out their duties.