20 Explosive Supreme Court Judgements that Changed History

Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Marshall (1801-1835), author of the judgment in Marbury v. Madison (1803), by Henry Inman (c. 1832). Wikimedia Commons.

19. Marbury v. Madison determined the legal body possessed the power of judicial review and could invalidate laws

Following the defeat of the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800, the outgoing and ungracious John Adams and his supporters sought to stack federal offices with “anti-Jeffersonians”. Nominating nearly sixty individuals to circuit judge positions on March 2, 1801 – two days before the end of his term – these so-called “Midnight Judges” were confirmed en masse by the Senate and writs were sent out confirming their appointments. However, with Jefferson taking office on March 4, not all of these notices reached their recipients in time and Jefferson promptly canceled all those outstanding claiming the offers had become consequently void.

William Marbury, a passionate supporter of Adams denied his seat by the new Secretary of State James Madison, filed suit against Madison in December 1801 for his refusal to deliver his commission. Although siding with Marbury, noting Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was illegal, the Supreme Court did not order his compliance. Instead, Chief Justice John Marshall announced the law which gave the court the authority to examine the situation – the Judiciary Act of 1789 – had expanded the court’s jurisdiction beyond constitutional limits. Striking down the foundational law, the Supreme Court asserted the now-famous power of judicial review to invalidate laws found to violate the United States Constitution.