Case Study B: “McCulloch v. Maryland & Marbury v. Madison”

In this case study we are going to examine and analyze two of the most important Supreme Court rulings in our nation’s history: Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland.

The way this analysis is conducted is going to be very similar to and essentially mirror your assignment for this week (though in your assignment you will be analyzing a different case, the steps will be very similar).

First, let’s examine the case of McCulloch v. Maryland

The Key Points of the Case

The petitioner in the case was McCulloch. McCulloch argued that the state of Maryland could not tax the Second Bank of the United States since the bank had been created by Congress, which was the Federal Government. He further argued that state governments could not tax the Federal Government as a means of controlling the Federal Government.

The respondent in the case was the state of Maryland. Maryland argued that they could tax the bank because nowhere in the Constitution had Congress been given the power to create a bank. The state of Maryland was the key state in the case.

The key part of the Constitution discussed in the case was the Necessary and Proper Clause.

The necessary and proper clause states that Congress has the power to make any laws that are, “necessary and proper” to carrying out their powers listed in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

In this case, the necessary and proper clause was discussed because Congress believe that they had powers beyond those explicitly stated in the specific words of the Constitution. Congress claimed to have powers that were implied by the powers it was granted in the Constitution.

Also discussed was the Supremacy Clause. The Supremacy Clause states that federal law always supersedes state law. In this case, the Supremacy Clause was discussed because the state of Maryland was trying to tax the Federal Government as a means of limiting the powers of the Federal Government.

The Final Ruling

The case was heard in February of 1819 and decided in March of 1819. The court decided, with not a single justice disagreeing, that Maryland could not tax the Second Bank and that McCulloch was correct for not paying the tax. This decision meant that Congress had the power to pass laws beyond only those that were plainly allowed by the text of the Constitution. This also meant that states could not attempt to restrict, control, or prevent the Federal Government from doing something that the Federal Government had the power to do by the text of the Constitution – even if those powers were implied. This decision made it clear that acts of Federal Government were supreme to acts of state governments. The states had not created the federal government. Instead, the people had, through the Federal Government, created the states. This also paved the way for Congress, as well as other branches of federal government to expand their powers especially when the text of the Constitution is vague on a particular matter. This decision was a huge win for Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton that argued for a strong national federal government. This ruling still impacts our lives today. For example, this case means that the rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which sets abortion policy is supreme over state laws and regulations that attempt to restrict a woman’s right to access an abortion. Such as with the debate over abortion policy, the question of what is in the power of the states to do and what is in the power of the Federal Government to do impacts our current elections and political policy debates.

Now let’s consider the case of Marbury v. Madison.

The Key Points of the Case

The petitioner in the case was William Marbury. Marbury, along with several other federalists had been appointed to jobs right at the end of John Adam’s term in office. Adam’s had rushed to make these appointments before Jefferson (who was not a federalist) could take office. The commissions for Marbury and the other federalists’ jobs were accidentally forgotten on a desk by John Marshall (who hadn’t yet become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) before Jefferson took office. Marbury was arguing that the appointment had been made, even though it had not been delivered and that he should have his job.

Madison, on behalf of Jefferson, argued that the court could not force the Jefferson administration to produce the appointment letters and thus Marbury and the Federalists would not have their jobs.

The part of the Constitution considered in this case was the powers of the Supreme Court under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The law considered in this case was the Judiciary Act of 1789 that said the Supreme Court could create a “writ of mandamus” that could force someone to do something.

This case became very awkward as John Marshall (who had forgotten to deliver the commissions) was now the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when the case was heard. He also knew that Jefferson and Madison, if they were ruled against, would simply ignore the court order. The court, as the judicial branch of government had no way of enforcing a law or a ruling be followed. It was for the executive branch to enforce their decision. However, in this case the executive branch was not going to enforce a decision against itself. Such a decision could significant damage the power and reputation of the court for the future.

The Supreme Court unanimously decided that on paper Marbury won the case and should get his job; however, the Court found that it had no power to enforce that ruling and that the law Marbury claimed allowed the Court to issue a writ of mandamus (forcing Jefferson to give Marbury and the federalists their jobs) was unconstitutional as the Supreme Court didn’t have the Constitution power to issue writs of mandamus.

This ruling meant that the Supreme Court had the power to review laws passed by Congress and declare them unconstitutional. This is called Judicial Review. Congress could not just make laws that violated the constitution. So in the end Marbury won the case, but Jefferson and Madison got their way, and the power of the Supreme Court was strengthened significantly.

Marshall famously wrote, “the Constitution was ‘the fundamental and paramount law of the nation’ and that “an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void.”

This ruling establishing the Supreme Court as the final and supreme decider of whether or not a law was Constitutional. Judicial Review, in conjunction with the Supremacy Clause essentially creates a hierarchy of law in America. The text of the Constitution over the Supreme Court interpreting the law or Constitution (and what they say is the final accepted interpretation, no questions asked), followed by federal law, and finally state law.

It is also important to note that this case was decided in 1803, which means that most of the founders were alive and therefore the justices had a reasonable assessment as to the founders’ “original intent” as to the meaning of the Constitution. In our current political discourse, states’ rights advocates often criticize the Supreme Court for acting outside its Constitutional authority. For example, this charge was leveled against the court by some leaders in response to the Supreme Court ruling legalizing Same Sex Marriage. However, the Court’s power to make such a ruling and to have that ruling be the unquestioned supreme law of the land was determined in 1803 (only 15 years after the Constitution was ratified) with many of the founding fathers alive and present.


Marbury v. Madison. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

McCulloch v. Maryland. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from

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