What did the Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison do when confronted with an “either/or” decision, neither of which was desirable? It engaged in creative decision making.
A few days ago, I proposed that Marbury v. Madison, a landmark case that focused on constitutional concepts governing judicial review and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, presents an excellent example of brilliant decision-making. If you haven’t had a chance to read the background of the case, together with the Court’s dilemma, take a moment to do so.
Recall that the Supreme Court, relying on the apparent authority of the Judiciary Acts of 1789 and 1801, appeared to possess only two options: (i) rule in favor of Marbury and order Madison to physically deliver the commission papers to Marbury or (ii) rule against Marbury and allow President Jefferson to appoint his own justice of the peace; however, the Supreme Court preferred neither option.
- If the Court ruled in favor of Marbury, the new administration would simply “ignore” the decision: the Supreme Court lacked the ability to enforce its own ruling. Without an “army,” so to speak, the Court could not, in any realistic or practical sense, effectively “order” Madison to actually deliver the commission documents to Marbury. If the Court pursued this option, it would make itself appear foolishly impotent when President Jefferson simply refused to obey the Supreme Court’s order.
- If, however, the Court ruled against Marbury, it would make itself appear easily intimidated by President Jefferson and the new administration.
In one of the most brilliant face-saving decisions the Court has probably ever rendered, the Supreme Court simply refused to decide whether Madison was required to deliver the commission documents to Marbury.
What? Yes, the Court pursued “Plan C” and punted.
The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction — that is, its authority — to decide cases is limited by the Constitution. Indeed, with very few exceptions, the Court lacks jurisdiction to decide most types of cases because the Constitution substantially and expressly narrows the Court’s jurisdiction. Marbury filed his suit against Madison directly in the Supreme Court pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1789, a federal law that purportedly granted the Supreme Court jurisdiction to decide a case like Marbury’s.
And that was the Court’s “out.”
In rendering its decision, the Supreme Court held that the Judiciary Act of 1789, to the extent that it attempted to grant the Court jurisdiction to decide a case like Marbury’s, was unconstitutional. Specifically, the Supreme Court explained that its jurisdiction was limited by the Constitution itself, and Congress could not legislatively expand the Court’s jurisdiction beyond the Constitution’s limits; in other words, Congress’s attempt to expand the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction to hear a case like Marbury’s — which the Judiciary Act of 1789 purportedly did — violated the Court’s jurisdictional limits expressly imposed by the Constitution. Therefore, because the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction — that is, the ability — to decide Marbury’s suit against Madison.
Marbury v. Madison illustrates exceptional decision making and the ability to escape “either/or” thinking. At first, the Court appeared trapped in an unpleasant dilemma, yet the Supreme Court reached a third option — Plan C — which entirely avoided the pitfalls of an “either/or” resolution. In the end, the Court’s decision to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction proved brilliant, arguably avoiding a constitutional crisis.
Next time you seem limited to an “either/or” option, engage in additional decision making strategies by fashioning a Madison v. Marbury solution!