Who was William Marbury?

William Marbury was a Georgetown businessman and member of the Federalist party whom John Adams appointed justice of the peace of the District of Columbia the day before he left office. Because Adams had filled 58 judicial positions (42 justices of the peace and 16 federal judgeships), the Secretary of State, John Marshall, was unable to deliver all of the commissions before assuming his new role as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The men Adams appointed became known as the "Midnight Judges" for Adams' last-minute exploitation of the Judiciary Act of 1801 and the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801.

The appointments were made during the last few days before Adams left office, and were not delivered before the new President, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in. Jefferson reduced the number of commissions from 42 to 30, and reappointed members of his own party to five of the 30 justice of the peace positions. William Marbury was among those whose commission was destroyed.

Marbury then asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus (an order forcing a public official to take action) compelling Madison to award Marbury his commission.

The Supreme Court determined that, while Marbury was legally entitled to hold the position Adams appointed him to, the Court had no authority to order the Secretary of State to deliver the paperwork because the Judiciary Act of 1789, in which Congress gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over such matters, was unconstitutional because it awarded the Court powers not specifically prescribed in the Constitution. This decision established the Supreme Court's right of judicial review over legislation.

Marbury never got his commission.

Case Citation:

Marbury v. Madison, 5 US 137 (1803)

For more information see Related Questions, below.