When Federalist John Adams failed of reelection in 1800, he made Marshall a ‘lame duck’ appointee as Chief Justice of the United States. This and other court appointments by the outgoing administration caused considerable consternation among the victorious Democratic-Republicans. During his long tenure, the decisions of the Marshall Court laid down the groundwork for an independent judiciary, the Court’s role as the final arbiter of the Constitution, and practical guidelines for the functioning of a nation with distributed domestic sovereignty.
Marshall’s greatest contribution to American constitutional practice was the establishment of the concept of judicial review: the Supreme Court should be the final arbiter in determining whether Acts of Congress and the actions of the Executive (i.e., the President) are consonant with the language of the Constitution. This was accomplished through the resolution of an otherwise obscure suit at law brought by a Maryland businessman, William Marbury, requesting the Supreme Court issue a writ of mandamus to Secretary of State James Madison, requiring the latter to deliver to Marbury an already signed and sealed appointment as Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia. Marbury was one of a group of 42 men appointed justices of the peace by the lame-duck Adams Administration. In the ensuing months, 25 had their appointments confirmed by the new administration. Marbury belonged to the denied group. Marbury v. Madison, unlike virtually all other cases before the Supreme Court, was one in which the judges sat as a trial court of the original instance. Marbury’s request for a writ of mandamus was brought under the terms of article 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Marbury and the host of other ‘midnight’ appointments were a partisan political issue and Marshall was desperate to keep the court from becoming politicized, realizing that under such conditions, an independent judiciary could not prevail.