Why Marbury V. Madison Still Matters

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Tuesday, Feb. 24, is the 206th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison, the most important decision the Supreme Court—and perhaps any court—has ever issued. The late chief justice William Rehnquist hailed it as "the most significant single contribution the United States has made to the art of government"; nations around the world look to Marbury as they work to create institutions that will protect the rule of law. As the United States thinks anew about its commitment to these rules, it would serve us well to draw on the wisdom of this landmark decision.

Marbury v. Madison emerged from a fight about "midnight judges" in 1801. In the final days of his presidency, John Adams worked with Federalists in Congress to pack the federal courts and the new capital with Federalist appointees. Days after his inauguration, the new president, Thomas Jefferson (of the rival Democratic-Republican party) noticed a pile of letters sitting on a table at the State Department. Realizing that they were commissions for Federalists that mistakenly had not been sent, Jefferson forbade their delivery. One of the commissions was for an ambitious man named William Marbury.

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