The more fundamental issue that it decided was to insist on the court's authority to declare an act of Congress void if found to be in conflict with the Constitution.Since Marbury v. Madison the Supreme Court has been the final decision maker regarding the Constitutionality of Congressional legislation.
Marshall's decision in this case has been hailed as a judicial tour de force. In essence, he declared that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury, but then held that the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the authority allotted the Court under Article III of the Constitution, and was therefore null and void. Thus he was able to chastise the Jeffersonians and yet not create a situation in which a court order would be flouted.
The power of the Supreme Court has evolved over time, through a series of milestone court cases. One of the Court's most fundamental powers is judicial review–the power to judge the constitutionality of any act or law of the executive or legislative branch.
In his opinion for the Supreme Court: Marshall states that first, by signing the commission of Marbury, the President of the United States appointed him as Justice of the Peace for Washington County in the District of Columbia. Second, by having this legal title to the office, Marbury had a right to the commission; a refusal in delivering this commission was a plain violation of that right, for which the laws of the country afforded a remedy. Third, the Court had to determine whether Marbury was entitled to the remedy for which he applied.
The new chief justice, John Marshall, understood that if the Court awarded Marbury a writ of mandamus (an order to force Madison to deliver the commission) the Jefferson administration would ignore it, and thus significantly weaken the authority of the courts. On the other hand, if the Court denied the writ, it might well appear that the justices had acted out of fear. Either case would be a denial of the basic principle of the supremacy of the la
On December 21, 1801, Marbury filed suit in the Supreme Court seeking a writ of mandamus to compel Madison to deliver his commission which, he claimed, Madison had no right to withhold. Marbury was represented by Charles Lee who had served as Attorney General under Adams. Madison received notice, but declined to acknowledge the propriety of the suit even by appearing through counsel.
Marbury asked the Supreme Court to order Jefferson's Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the commission. Marbury's demand precipitated a confrontation between Chief Justice Marshall and President Thomas Jefferson.
The facts surrounding Marbury were complicated. In the election of 1800, the newly organized Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalist party of John Adams, creating an atmosphere of political panic for the lame duck Federalists. In the final days of his presidency, Adams appointed a large number of justices of peace for the District of Columbia whose commissions were approved by the Senate, signed by the president, and affixed with the official seal of the government. The commissions were not delivered, however, and when President Jefferson assumed office March 5, 1801, he ordered James Madison, his Secretary of State, not to deliver them. William Marbury, one of the appointees, then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, or legal order, compelling Madison to show cause why he should not receive his commission.
On January 20, 1801, President John Adams offered the name of John Marshall for approval by the Senate as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. The President's action followed the resignation of Oliver Ellsworth (who resigned as the third Chief Justice for reasons of health), and an unsuccessful overture to John Jay (the first Chief Justice) who declined the President's appointment on grounds of age and the necessity of sitting on the circuit courts.
Marbury v. Madison, arguably the most important case in Supreme Court history, was the first U.S. Supreme Court case to apply the principle of "judicial review" -- the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution.