Marbury v. Madison

Decision Date01 February 1803
Citation5 U.S. 137,2 L.Ed. 60,1 Cranch 137
PartiesWilliam MARBURY v. James MADISON, Secretary of State of the United States.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


The supreme court of the U. States has not power to issue a mandamus to a secretary of state of the U. States, it being an exercise of original jurisdiction not warranted by the constitution. Congress have not power to give original jurisdiction to the supreme court in other cases than those described in the constitution. An act of congress repugnant to the constitution cannot become a law. The courts of the U. States are bound to take notice of the constitution. A commission is not necessary to the appointment of an officer by the executive-Semb. A commission is only evidence of an appointment.

Delivery is not necessary to the validity of letters patent. The President cannot authorize a secretary of state to omit the performanceof those duties which are enjoined by law.

A justice of peace in the district of Columbia is not removable at the will of the President. When a commission for an officer not holding his office at the will of the President, is by him signed and transmitted to the secretary of state to be sealed and recorded, it is irrevocable; the appointment is complete. A mandamus is the proper remedy to compel a secretary of state to deliver a commission to which the party is entitled.

At the last term, viz. December term, 1801, William Marbury, Dennis Ramsay, Robert Townsend Hooe, and William Harper, by their counsel, Charles Lee, esq. late attorney general of the United States, severally moved the court for a rule to James Madison, secretary of state of the United States, to shew cause why a mandamus should not issue commanding him to cause to be delivered to them respectively their several commissions as justices of the peace in the district of Columbia. This motion was supported by affidavits of the following facts; that notice of this motion had been given to Mr. Madison; that Mr. Adams, the late president of the United States, nominated the applicants to the senate for their advice and consent to be appointed justices of the peace of the district of Columbia; that the senate advised and consented to the appointments; that commissions in due form were signed by the said president appointing them justices, &c. and that the seal of the United States was in due form affixed to the said commissions by the secretary of state; that the applicants have requested Mr. Madison to deliver them their said commissions, who has not complied with that request; and that their said commissions are withheld from them; that the applicants have made application to Mr. Madison as secretary of state of the United States at his office, for information whether the commissions were signed and sealed as aforesaid; that explicit and satisfactory information has not been given in answer to that inquiry, either by the secretary of state or any officer in the department of state; that application has been made to the secretary of the Senate for a certificate of the nomination of the applicants, and of the advice and consent of the senate, who has declined giving such a certificate; whereupon a rule was laid to shew cause on the 4th day of this term. This rule having been duly served,

Mr. Lee, in support of the rule, observed that it was important to know on what ground a justice of peace in the district of Columbia holds his office, and what proceedings are necessary to constitute an appointment to an office not held at the will of the president. However notorious the facts are, upon the suggestion of which this rule has been laid, yet the applicants have been much embarrassed in obtaining evidence of them. Reasonable information has been denied at the office of the department of state. Although a respectful memorial has been made to the senate praying them to suffer their secretary to give extracts from their executive journals respecting the nomination of the applicants to the senate, and of their advice and consent to the appointments, yet their request has been denied, and their petition rejected. They have therefore been compelled to summon witnesses to attend in court, whose voluntary affidavits they could not obtain. Mr. Lee here read the affidavit of Dennis Ramsay, and the printed journals of the senate of 31 January, 1803, respecting the refusal of the senate to suffer their secretary to give the information requested. He then called Jacob Wagner and Daniel Brent, who had been summoned to attend the court, and who had, as it is understood, declined giving a voluntary affidavit. They objected to being sworn, alleging that they were clerks in the department of state and not bound to disclose any facts relating to the business or transactions in the office.

Mr. Lee observed, that to shew the propriety of examining these witnesses, he would make a few remarks on the nature of the office of secretary of state. His duties are of two kinds, and he exercises his functions in two distinct capacities; as a public ministerial officer of the United States, and as agent of the President. In the first his duty is to the United States or its citizens; in the other his duty is to the President; in the one he is an independent, and an accountable officer; in the other he is dependent upon the President, is his agent, and accountable to him alone. In the former capacity he is compellable by mandamus to do his duty; in the latter he is not. This distinction is clearly pointed out by the two acts of congress upon this subject. The first was passed 27th July, 1789, vol. 1. p. 359, entitled "an act for establishing an executive department, to be denominated the department of foreign affairs." The first section ascertains the duties of the secretary so far as he is considered as a mere executive agent. It is in these words, "Be it enacted, &c. that there shall be an executive department, to be denominated the department of foreign affairs, and that there shall be a principal officer therein, to be called the secretary of the department of foreign affairs, who shall perform and execute such duties as shall from time to time be enjoined on, or intrusted to him by the President of the United States, agreeable to the constitution, relative to correspondencies, commissionsor instructions to or with public ministers or consuls from the United States; or to negotiations with public ministers from foreign states or princes, or to memorials or other applications from foreign public ministers, or other foreigners, or to such other matters respecting foreign affairs as the President of the United States shall assign to the said department; and furthermore, that the said principal officer shall conduct the business of the said department in such manner as the President of the United States shall from time to time order or instruct."

The second section provides for the appointment of a chief clerk; the third section prescribes the oath to be taken which is simply, "well and faithfully to execute the trust committed to him;" and the fourth and last section gives him the custody of the books and papers of the department of foreign affairs under the old congress. Respecting the powers given and the duties imposed by this act, no mandamus will lie. The secretary is responsible only to the President. The other act of congress respecting this department was passed at the same session on the 15th September 1789, vol. 1, p. 41, c. 14, and is entitled "An act to provide for the safe keeping of the acts, records, and seal of the United States, and for other purposes." The first section changes the name of the department and of the secretary, calling the one the department and the other the secretary of state. The second section assigns new duties to the secretary, in the performance of which it is evident, from their nature, he cannot be lawfully controlled by the president, and for the non-performance of which he is not more responsible to the president than to any other citizen of the United States. It provides that he shall receive from the president all bills, orders, resolutions and votes of the senate and house of representatives, which shall have been approved and signed by him; and shall cause them to be published, and printed copies to be delivered to the senators and representatives and to the executives of the several states; and makes it his duty carefully to preserve the originals; and to cause them to be recorded in books to be provided for that purpose. The third section provides a seal of the United States. The fourth makes it his duty to keep the said seal, and to make out and record, and to affix the seal of the United States to all civil commissions, after theyshall have been signed by the President. The fifth section provides for a seal of office, and that all copies of records and papers in his office, authenticated under that seal, shall be as good evidence as the originals. The sixth section establishes fees for copies, &c. The seventh and last section gives him the custody of the papers of the office of the secretary of the old congress. Most of the duties assigned by this act are of a public nature, and the secretary is bound to perform them, without the control of any person. The President has no right to prevent him from receiving the bills, orders, resolutions and votes of the legislature, or from publishing and distributing them, or from preserving or recording them. While the secretary remains in office the President cannot take from his custody the seal of the United States, nor prevent him from recording, and affixing the seal to civil commissions of such officers as hold not their offices at the will of the President, after he has signed them and delivered them to the secretary for that purpose. By other laws he is to make out and record in his office patents for useful discoveries, and patents of lands granted under the authority of the United States. In the...

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