Former Supreme Court clerk and Slate publisher Sloan and veteran political aide McKean (co-authors: Tommy the Cork: Washington’s Ultimate Insider from Roosevelt to Reagan, 2003) bring to life one of the most important legal cases in American history.
In 1801 William Marbury filed suit to compel Jefferson’s Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commission, signed and sealed by former President John Adams, naming Marbury a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. Writing for the entire court, the Adams-appointed Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that Marbury’s commission had been completed, that the executive branch in its ministerial capacity was susceptible to suit and that the law had been broken. After slapping the Republicans Jefferson and Madison, the Federalist Marshall then avoided a confrontation with the powerful new president by stunningly declaring unconstitutional the congressional statute giving the court jurisdiction. This apparently self-denying ruling supplied no relief for Marbury, but it established the judiciary as the final arbiter of any conflict between the law and the Constitution. In one stroke Marshall elevated the least significant of the three branches of government, enhancing the prestige of a formerly weak institution. Marbury v. Madison arose in the wake of the death of Washington, the country’s only truly unifying figure, and the first contested election in the nation’s history, bitterly waged between the nationalist Federalists and the Republicans. Sloan and McKean supply Marbury’s historical context and unravel the complex fabric of personalities, politics and law that animated the case. After Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education—and maybe Dred Scott and Bush v. Gore—few Americans can explain even a single case from the country’s highest court. The authors’ enthusiasm and clear prose vivify the contention that, as Marshall said, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”
A crisp, colorful examination of the case that established the formidable power of the federal judiciary.