Although Marbury v. Madison is best known for its role in advancing the concept of judicial review, its true brilliance involves creative decision making.
In 1803, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in Marbury v. Madison, a landmark case that addressed constitutional concepts governing judicial review and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Equally important, though, the Court’s decision presents a remarkable case study on decision making, and, in particular, alternatives to “either/or” decision making.
First, a brief background and context. On February 17, 1801, Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, defeated President John Adams, a Federalist. However, Jefferson would not assume the presidency until March 4, 1801. During this three-week time period, President Adams, acting under the apparent authority of the Judiciary Acts of 1789 and 1801, together with the support of the lame-duck Federalist Congress, appointed a number of Federalist judges and justices of the peace in order to ensure a Federalist “presence” once the Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson and a new Congress, assumed office. In order for the appointments to become official, the “commission” documents were required to be physically delivered to the newly appointed judges and justices of the peace.
On March 3, 1801 — that is, President Adams’ last day in office — President Adams appointed William Marbury, a Federalist leader from Maryland, as a justice of the peace. However, the commission documents were not physically delivered to Marbury when Jefferson became president the next day. President Jefferson, fully aware of Adams’ tactic, simply refused to have the commission documents delivered to Marbury. As a result, Marbury sued James Madison, President Jefferson’s Secretary of State, in the Supreme Court. Marbury sought to have the Supreme Court, composed of Federalists, order Madison to deliver the commission documents to Marbury.
At first blush, the Supreme Court possessed only two options:
- rule in favor of Marbury, and order Madison to physically deliver the commission papers to Marbury; or
- rule against Marbury, and allow President Jefferson to appoint his own justice of the peace.
In truth, though, 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 his new administration.
Because neither decision was appealing, the Court reassessed its options and, in the end, fashioned a brilliant solution that resulted from creative decision making.
What was the Court’s brilliant solution? And how does Marbury v. Madison exemplify savvy decision making?
To be continued…