The United States Constitution did not describe in detail the nature of the federal judicial system. It described the powers of the Supreme Court but did not detail things such as the number of justices. The Judiciary Act of 1789 was the first order of business for the first Congress under the new constitution. Among other things, it gave the Supreme Court the power to issue a Writ of Mandamus.
At the end of John Adams' administration, in order to frustrate the objectives of the incoming Jeffersonians, the president appointed a number of judicial officers, which were approved by the lame-duck Congress, which was still in Federalist hands. One of the appointments was John Marshall as chief justice.
Another was William Marbury, a native of Maryland and ardent support of the Federalist party. Marbury was appointed to the position of district judge. Along with all the other appointments, his required a commmission to become fully operative and Marbury was one of those whose commission was not delivered before Jefferson took office. Jefferson immediately instructed his officers to cease delivery of any outstanding commissions, and voiced the opinion that without the commission being delivered, the appointments were consequently void.
Marbury sued James Madison, as secretary of state, and the case reached the Supreme Court. On February 24, 1803, the court rendered its decision. It found in favor of Marbury on all points of fact and law except one. Although it was clear that Marbury should have his appointment and that federal officials were obliged to deliver his commission, Marshall ruled that the original legislation giving the Supreme Court the right to issue mandamus was not supported by the constitution and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 could not give the Supreme Court powers that the constitution did not provide. Thus Marbury's claim for a writ of mandamus was denied.
This as the first instance of judicial review, whereby the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of Congressional legislation. Interestingly, in this first case, the Supreme Court in essence ruled against itself, and denied that it had power that Congress thought it had given. However, this mild loss was offset by the huge assertion of power by the court as the final arbiter of constitutionality.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding Marbury v. Madison.
By John Marshall
It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is...If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each...This is of the very essence of judicial duty.