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Jefferson and the Courts

On his last day in office, John Adams attempted to further the Federalist legacy by appointing numerous federal judges to office. These became known as the "midnight appointments" and naturally irritated the incoming Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Federalist views. These judges held lifetime tenures, making it impossible for the new president to shape the judiciary. One of the appointees, William Marbury, was appointed a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia; the appointment was ratified by the Senate. However, his official commission had not been delivered by the time Jefferson took office. The new secretary of state, James Madison, seemingly flouted the provisions of the Judiciary Act of 1789 by refusing to deliver the documents. Marbury then sued for a writ of mandamus — a court order to compel a federal official to carry out a prescribed action. The case did not reach the Supreme Court until 1803. The chief justice was John Marshall, a staunch Federalist and former Adams secretary of state, who had received his appointment to the high court just two months before Jefferson took office. Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison accomplished the following:

  • Gave the Chief Justice opportunity to chide his political opponents by holding that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury
  • Avoided a confrontation between the Judiciary and Executive branch, given that no action was ordered by the Supreme Court
  • Established the precedent of judicial review by holding that the portion of Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue such writs was unconstitutional.
Marbury never became a justice of the peace in Washington, but John Marshall had fashioned a Supreme Court with power equal to the other branches of government. In the aftermath of the Marshall decision, the Democratic-Republicans tried other means to remake the judiciary. They enjoyed initial success by impeaching and removing from office one John Pickering, a federal judge in New Hampshire; Pickering was plagued by mental problems and probably needed to be removed from his position. Next, however, the Jefferson forces moved against a Supreme Court associate justice, Samuel Chase, who was charged with impartial behavior and impeached by the House. The Senate, much to its credit and Jefferson's chagrin, refused to remove him from office.