Marbury v. Madison mayhem!
March 2, 2009 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Either I have found a secret flaw in the opinion, or I am misunderstanding something major about Marbury v. Madison. The later is more likely, being as this would have been brought up before as one of the most important SCOTUS cases... but I can't find it anywhere!

Okay, so the basic opinion of Marbury goes:

The constitution only lets us use original jurisdiction in cases with public officials, advisors, and consuls. Otherwise we need to use appellate jurisdiction only. (Article 3 of the constitution)

Issuing a writ of mandamus, as it is in this case brought straight to the Supreme Court and not appealed up from a lower court, original jurisdiction.

In this case we do not have original jurisdiction, so the law giving us the right to issue the writ in this case (Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789) is unconstitutional.

Therefore, when an Act of Congress is unconstitutional, we the Supreme Court have the right to issue it void. Voila, judicial review.


Marbury, according to the earlier part of the decision, had legally gotten the job of Justice of the Peace as soon as Adams had signed the paper, even though it never got delivered. Isn't that a public official?
And even if this didn't count because of the ultimate ruling of the court, not enforcing the position, Madison was still the secretary of state to Jefferson at the time of the case.

So isn't this a case concerning public official, advisors, or consuls?
So didn't the court have original jurisdiction?
So the Act of 1789 wasn't unconstitutional?

The whole case falls apart from there. Did Chief Justice Marshall fudge this so he could outline the Court Power of Judicial Review? Or so he could rule against Marbury and avoid pissing off Jefferson?

Or am I missing the correct definition of public officials, advisors, and consuls, and therefore the times when the court has original jurisdiction? I read that the court RARELY ever uses it today, but back in the day people went less on precedent and more on the newly formed constitution. And at least to me, the constitution doesn't contradict this law.

Please! I am but a lowly law student. Will some legal scholar please clarify this for me? I can hardly write a long paper on the case history if I disagree with the ruling fundamentally.
posted by shadowfelldown to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Part of the problem is that you're misquoting the Constitution. Art. III, sect. 2 grants original jurisdiction over cases and controversies concerning "Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls". That should suggest where you've gone wrong. The Constitution gives the Supreme Court original jurisdiction involving cases and controversies involving those officials representing the government in its sovereign capacity to other nations, whether they be officials of this government or of foreign sovereigns. The intent here is to ensure that diplomats, and the foreign governments they represent, need not fear prosecution by recalcitrant states, as only the federal Supreme Court has jurisdiction over them. The three terms, "Ambassadors, "public Ministers," and "Consuls" are more-or-less synonymous.

As Marbury was not an official of that nature, there is nothing wrong with the Court's opinion. I haven't done a WestLaw search here, so I don't have specific citations for you, but if you were to do it yourself you'd be able to confirm this. Your ConLaw book probably explains this as well if you look under the appropriate section.
posted by valkyryn at 1:08 PM on March 2, 2009

valkyryn's explanation is correct. More detail on that clause, its history, and interpretation.
posted by jedicus at 1:16 PM on March 2, 2009

valkyryn has it right.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:27 PM on March 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks guys!

My conlaw book isn't what I'd like, and it doesn't explain this, and it leaves out valuable excerpts I found in other law books.
posted by shadowfelldown at 1:29 PM on March 2, 2009

If your conlaw book is cruddy, shadowfelldown, I can't recommend Chemerinsky's hornbook to you highly enough.
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:52 PM on March 2, 2009

Did you happen to notice who the Secretary of State was who had failed to deliver the commission by the end of the day?
posted by yclipse at 1:54 PM on March 2, 2009

Response by poster: Of course, but Marshall's ideology was in contention with the interest of self preservation when he went from a federalist SOS to Chief Justice of the Court under an antifederalist president. Really this ruling satisfies both wishes beautifully by chastising Jefferson and Madison in the beginning of the opinion, but in ruling against Marbury he escaped executive retaliation.

If Marshall had let his former position dictate his actions in this case, it would have had a different ruling.
posted by shadowfelldown at 6:55 AM on March 3, 2009

valkyryn is generally correct.

But I wanted to address another part of your question:

I can hardly write a long paper on the case history if I disagree with the ruling fundamentally.

This is a skill you must develop in order to have any success in law school or as an attorney. You have to learn how to argue the merits of a position irrespective of your personal beliefs on a topic. You won't always agree with the law or an opinion or your client, but you have to still follow it.

Take, for instance, a famous case I'm sure you have discussed in law school: Hadley v. Baxendale. I addressed it one of my posts on Metafilter (and incidentally, as a law student you may find some of my posts on the blue interesting) and noted that I disagreed with that opinion:
I think the opinion in Hadley was wrong, despite the fact that the rule was correct. It always seemed to me that they Court was trying to protect the carrier. The Court seemed to land on the right rule and still wrongly rule in the carrier's favor:
Even based on the "new" rule--that only reasonably foreseeable damages are recoverable--the miller rather than the carrier should have won the case. The court's opinion simply overlooks the fact the carrier was informed that the mills was stopped; it must have been quite clear to the carrier's clerk that restarting the mill was the reason for the haste, and that profits would be lost while the mill was idle.

Of course, as has been said, that is the genius of the common law: the actual outcome of the case is irrelevant; the rule was right and the rules are what we follow and refine while facts can be distinguished and ignored.
But it is of little importance whether you agree with a ruling fundamentally. You just need to try to understand and be willing to argue its principle irrespective of whether you agree with it or not. It's an important skill.

And there will be LOTS and LOTS of cases you do not agree with.

Good luck!
posted by dios at 3:49 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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