At the last term, viz., December term 1801, William Marbury, Dennis Ramsay, Robert, 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 show 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 commissions, who has not complied with that request; and that their said commissions are withheld from them; that the applicants made their 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 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 show cause on the fourth day of this term. The 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 the peace in the District of Columbia holds his office, and what proceedings are necessary to constitute an appointment to an office not held as the will of the President. . . .
Mr. Lee observed, that to show 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.
Mr. Lee then observed, that having proved the existence of the commissions, he should confine such further remarks as he to make in support of the rule to these three questions:
1st. Whether the Supreme court can award the writ of mandamus in any case?
2nd. Whether it will lie to a Secretary of State in any case whatever?
3rd. Whether, in the present, the court may award a mandamus to James Madison, secretary of state?
...Blackstone, vol. 3, p. 110, says that a writ of mandamus is "a command issuing in the king's name from the court of king's bench, and directed to any person, corporation or inferior court, requiring them to do some particular thing therein specified, which appertains to their office and duty, and which the court has previously determined, or at least supposes, to be consonant to right and justice. It is a writ of a most extensively remedial nature, and issues in all cases where the party has a right to have any thing done, and has no other specific means of compelling its performance."
Congress, by a law passed at the very first session after the adoption of the constitution, vol. 1, p. 58, s. 13, have expressly given the Supreme court the power of issuing writs of mandamus. The words are, "the Supreme Court shall also have appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts, and court of the several states, in the cases hereinafter specially provided for, and shall have power to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts, when proceeding as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; and writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States."
Congress is not restrained from conferring original jurisdiction in other cases than those mentioned in the constitution. 2 Dal. Rep. 298.
3d. The third point is, whether, in the present case, a writ of mandamus ought to be awarded to James Madison, secretary of state.
The justices of the peace in the District of Columbia are judicial officers, and hold their office for five years. The office is established by the act of congress passed the 27th of February, 1801, entitled "An act concerning the District of Columbia," c. 86, s. 11 and 14, p. 271, 273. They are authorized to hold courts and have cognizance of personal demands of the value of 20 dollars. The act of May 3d, 1802, c. 52, s. 4, considers them as judicial officers, and provides the mode in which execution shall issue upon their judgments. They hold their officers independent of the will of the president. The appointment of such an officer is complete when the president has nominated him to the senate, and the senate having advised and consented, and the president has signed the commission, and delivered it to the secretary to be sealed. The president has then done with it; it becomes irrevocable. An appointment of a judge once completed, is made forever. He holds under the constitution. The requisites to be performed by the secretary are ministerial, ascertained by law, and he has no discretion, but must perform them; there is no dispensing power. In contemplation of law they are as if done.
These justices exercise part of the judicial power of the United States. They ought, therefore, to be independent. Mr Lee begged leave again to refer to the Federalist, vol. 2, Nos. 78 and 79, as containing a correct view of this subject. They contained observations and ideas which he wished might be generally read and understood. They contained the principles upon which this branch of our constitution was constructed. It is important to the citizens of this district that the justices should be independent; almost all the authority immediately exercised over them is that of the justices. They wish to know whether the justices of this district are to hold their commissions at the will of a secretary of state. This cause may seem trivial at firs view, but it is important in principle. It is for this reason that this court in now troubled with it. The emoluments, or the dignity of the office, are no objects with the applicants. They conceive themselves to be duly appointed justices of the peace; and they believe it to be their duty to maintain the rights of their office, and not suffer them to be violated by the hand of power. The citizens of this district have their fears excited by every stretch of power by a person so high in office as the secretary of state.
Afterwards, on the 24th February, the following opinion of the Court was delivered by the Chief Justice [Marshall].
Opinion of the Court.
... These principles have been, on the side of the applicant, very ably argued at the bar. In rendering the opinion of the court, there will be some departure in form, though not in substance, from the points stated in that argument.
In the order in which the court has viewed this subject, the following questions have been considered and decided.
1st. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
2d. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?
3d. If they afford him a remedy, is it a mandamus issuing from this court?
The first object of inquiry is,
1st. Has the applicant a right to the commission he demands?
His right originates in an act of congress passed in February, 1801, concerning the District of Columbia.
After dividing the district into two counties, the 11th section of this law enacts, "that there shall be appointed and for each of the said counties, such number of discreet persons to be justices of the peace as the president of the United States shall, from time to time, think expedient, to continue in office for five years.
It appears, from the affidavits, that in compliance with this law, a commission for William Marbury, as a justice of the peace for the county of Washington, was signed by John Adams, then President of the United States; after which the seal of the United States was affixed to it; but the commission has never reached the person for whom it was made out.
In order to determine whether he is entitled to this commission, it becomes necessary to inquire whether he has been appointed to the office. For if he has been appointed, the law continues him in office for five years, and he is entitled to the possession of those evidences of office, which, being completed, became his property.
The 2d section of the 2d article of the constitution declares, that "the president shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the senate, shall appoint, ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not otherwise provided for."
The 3d section declares, that "he shall commission all the officers of the United States."
An act of congress directs the secretary of state to keep the seal of the United States, "to make out and record, and affix the said seal to all civil commissions to officers of the United States, to be appointed by the president, by and with the consent of the senate, or by the president alone; provided, that the said seal shall not be affixed to any commission before the same shall have been signed by the President of the United States."
These are the clauses of the constitution and laws of the United States, which affect this part of the case. They seem to contemplate three distinct operations:
1st. The nomination. This is the sole act of the president, and is completely voluntary.
2d. The appointment. This is also the act of the president, and is also a voluntary act, though it can only be performed by and with the advice and consent of the senate.
3d. The commission. To grant a commission to a person appointed, might, perhaps, be deemed a duty enjoined by the constitution. "He shall," says the instrument "commission all the officers of the United States."
The acts of appointing to office, and commissioning the person to be appointed, can scarcely be considered as one and the same; since the power to perform them is given in two separate and distinct sections of the constitution. The distinction between the appointment and the commission will be rendered more apparent by averting to that provision in the second section of the constitution, which authorizes congress "to vest, by law, the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the president alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments;" thus contemplating cases where the law may direct the president to commission an officer appointed by the courts, or by the heads of departments. In such a case, to issue a commission would be apparently a duty distinct from the appointment, the performance of which, perhaps, could not legally be refused.
Although that clause of the constitution which requires the president to commission all the officers of the United States, may never have been applied to officers appointed otherwise than by himself, yet it would be difficult to deny the legislative power to apply it to such cases. Of consequence, the constitutional distinction between the appointment to an office and the commission of an officer who has been appointed, remains the same as if in practice the president had commissioned officers appointed by an authority other than his own.
It follows, too, from the existence of this distinction, that if an appointment was to be evidenced by any public act, other than the commission, the performance of such public act would create the officer; and if he was not removable at the will of the president, would either give him right to his commission, or enable him to perform the duties without it.
These observations are premised solely for the purpose of rendering more intelligible those which apply more directly to the particular case under consideration.
This is an appointment made by the president, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, and is evidenced by no act but the commission itself. In such a case, therefore, the commission and the appointment seem inseparable; it being almost impossible to show an appointment otherwise than by proving the existence of a commission; still the commission is not necessarily the appointment, though conclusive evidence of it.
But at what stage does it amount to this conclusive evidence?
The answer to this question seem an obvious one. The appointment being the sole act of the president, must be completely evidenced, when it is shown that he has done everything to be performed by him.
Should the commission, instead of being evidence of an appointment, even be considered as constituting the appointment itself; still it would be made when the last act to be done by the president was performed, or, at furthest, when the commission was complete.
The last act to be done by the president is the signature of the commission. He has then acted on the advice and consent of the senate to his own nomination. The time for deliberation has then passed. He has decided. His judgment, on the advice and consent of the senate concurring with his nomination, has been made, and the officer is appointed. This appointment is evidenced by an open, unequivocal act; and being the last act required from the person making it, necessarily excludes the idea of its being, so far as respects the appointment, an inchoate and incomplete transaction.
Some point of time must be taken when the power of the executive over an officer, not removable at his will, must cease. That point of time must be when the constitutional power of appointment has been exercised. And this power has been exercised when the last act, required from the person possessing the power, has been performed. This last act is the signature of the commission. This idea seems to have prevailed with the legislature, when the act passed converting the department of foreign affairs into the department of state. By that act it is enacted, that the secretary of state, shall keep the seal of the United States, "and shall make out and record, and shall affix the said seal to all civil commissions to officers of the United States, to be appointed by the president;" "Provided, that the said seal shall not be affixed to any commission before the same shall have been signed by the President of the United States; nor to any other instrument of act, without the special warrant of the president therefor."
. . .
The commission being signed, the subsequent duty of the secretary of state is prescribed by law, and not to be guided by the will of the president. He is to affix the seal of the United States to the commission, and is to record it.
This is not a proceeding which may be varied if the judgment of the executive shall suggest one more eligible; but is a precise court accurately marked out by law, and is to be strictly pursued. It is the duty of the secretary of state to conform to the law, and in this he is an officer of the United States, bound to obey the laws.
. . .
But in all cases of letters patent, certain solemnities are required by law, which solemnities are the evidences of the validity of the instrument. A formal delivery to the person is not among them. In cases of commissions, the sign manual of the President, and the seal of the United States, are those solemnities. This objection, therefore, does not touch the case.
. . .
The transmission of the commission is a practice directed by convenience, but not by law. It cannot, therefore, be necessary to constitute the appointment which must precede it, and which is the mere act of the President.
. . .
It is, therefore, decidedly the opinion of the court, that when a commission has been signed by the President, the appointment is made; and that the commission is complete when the seal of the United States has been affixed to it by the Secretary of State.
Where an officer is removable at the will of the executive, the circumstance which completes his appointment is of no concern; because the act is at any time revocable; and the commission may be arrested, if still in the office. But when the officer is not removable at the will of the executive, the appointment is not revocable, and cannot be annulled. It has conferred legal rights which cannot be resumed.
The discretion of the executive is to be exercised until the appointment has been made. But having once made the appointment, his power over the office is terminated in all cases, where by law the officer is not removable by him. The right to the office is then in the person appointed, and he has the absolute, unconditional power of accepting or rejecting it.
Mr. Marbury, then, since his commission was signed by the President, and sealed by the Secretary of State, was appointed; and as the law creating the office, gave the officer a right to hold for five years, independent of the executive, the appointment was not revocable, but vested in the officer legal rights, which are protected by the laws of his country.
To withhold his commission, therefore, is an act deemed by the court not warranted by law, but violative of a vested legal right.
This brings us to the second inquiry; which is,
2d. If he has a right, and that right has been violated, do the laws of his country afford him a remedy?
The very essence of civil liberty certainly consists in the right of every individual to claim the protection of the laws, whenever he receives an injury. One of the first duties of government is to afford that protection. In Great Britain the king himself is sued in the respectful form of a petition, and he never fails to comply with the judgment of his court.
In the 3d vol. of his Commentaries, p. 23, Blackstone states two cases in which a remedy is afforded by mere operation of law.
"In all other cases," he says, "it is a general and indisputable rule, that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy by suit, or action at law, whenever that right is invaded."
And afterwards, p. 109, of the same vol. he says, "I am next to consider such injuries as are cognizable by the courts of the common law. And herein I shall for the present only remark, that all possible injuries whatsoever, that did not fall within the exclusive cognizance of either the ecclesiastical, military, or maritime tribunals, are, for that very reason, within the cognizance of the common law courts of justice; for it is a settled and invariable principle in the laws of England, that every right, when withheld, must have a remedy, and every injury its proper redress."
The government of the United States has been emphatically termed a government of laws, and not of men. It will certainly cease to deserve this high appellation, if the laws furnish no remedy for the violation of a vested legal right.
If this obloquy is to be case on the jurisprudence of this country, it must arise from the peculiar character of the case.
It behooves us, then, to inquire whether there be in its composition any ingredient which shall exempt it from legal investigation, or exclude the injured party from legal redress. In pursuing this inquiry the first question which presents itself is, whether this can be arranged with that class of cases which come under the description of damnum absque injuria; a loss without an injury.
This description of cases never has been considered, and it is believed never can be considered, as comprehending offices of trust, of honor, or of profit. The office of justice of peace in the District of Columbia is such an office' it is therefore worthy of the attention and guardianship of the laws. It has received that attention and guardianship. It has been created by special act of congress, and has been secured, so far as the laws can give security, to the person appointed to fill it, for five years. It is not, then, on account of the worthlessness of the thing pursued, that the injured party can be alleged to be without remedy.
. . .
It follows, then, that the question, whether the legality of an act of the head of a department be examinable in a court of justice or not, must always depend on the nature of that act.
If some acts be examinable, and other not, there must be some rule of law to guide the court in the exercise of its jurisdiction.
In some instances there may be difficulty in applying the rule to particular cases; but there cannot, it is believed, be much difficulty in laying down the rule.
By the constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character and to his own conscience. To aid him in the performance of these duties, he is authorized to appoint certain officers, who act by his authority, and in conformity with his orders.
In such cases, their acts are his acts; and whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being intrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive. The application of this remark will be perceived by adverting to the act of congress for establishing the department of foreign affairs. This officer, as his duties were prescribed by that act, is to conform precisely to the will of the President. He is the mere organ by whom that will is communicated. The acts of such an officer, as an officer, can never be examined by the courts.
But when the legislature proceeds to impose on that officer other duties; when he is directed peremptorily to perform certain acts; when the rights of individuals are dependent on the performance of those acts; he is so far the officer of the law; is amenable to the laws for his conduct; and cannot at his discretion sport away the vested rights of others.
The conclusion from this reasoning is, that where the heads of departments are the political or confidential agents of the executive, merely to execute the will of the President, or rather to act in cases in which the executive possesses a constitutional or legal discretion, nothing can be more perfectly clear than that their acts are only politically examinable. But where a specific duty is assigned by law, and individual rights depend upon the performance of that duty, it seems equally clear that the individual who considers himself injured, has a right to resort to the laws of his country for a remedy.
If this be the rule, let us inquire how it applies to the case under the consideration of the court.
The power of nominating to the senate, and the power of appointing the person nominated, are political powers, to be exercised by the President according to his own discretion. When he has made an appointment, he has exercised his whole power, and his discretion has been completely applied to the case.
. . .
The question whether a right has vested or not, is, in its nature, judicial, and must be tried by the judicial authority. If, for example, Mr. Marbury had taken the oaths of a magistrate and proceeded to act as one, in consequence of which a suit had been instituted against him, in which his defence had depended on his being a magistrate, the validity of his appointment must have been determined by judicial authority.
. . .
It is, then, the opinion of this Court,
1st. That by signing the commission of Mr Marbury the President of the United States appointed him a justice of peace for the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia; and that the seal of the United States, affixed thereto by the Secretary of State is conclusive testimony of the verity of the signature, and of the completion of the appointment; and that the appointment conferred on him a legal right to the office for the space of five years.
2d. That, having this legal title to the office he has a consequent right to the commission; a refusal to deliver which is a plain violation of that right, for which the laws of his country afford him a remedy.
It remains to be inquired whether,
3d. He is entitled to the remedy for which he applies. This depends on,
1st. The nature of the writ applied for; and
2d. The nature of this court.
1st. The nature of the writ.
Blackstone, in the 3d volume of his Commentaries, page 110, defines a mandamus to be "a command issuing the king's name from this court of king's bench, and directed to any person, corporation, or inferior court of judicature within the king's dominions, requiring them to do some particular thing therein specified, which appertains to their office and duty and which the court of king's bench has previously determined, or at least supposes, to be consonant to right and justice."
Lord Mansfield, in 3 Burrow, 1266, in the case of The King v. Baker et al., states, with much precision and explicitness, the cases in which this writ may be used.
"Whenever," says that very able judge, "there is a right to execute an office, perform a service, or exercise a franchise, (more especially if it be in a matter of public concern, or attended with profit,) and a person is kept out of possession, or dispossessed of such right, and has no other specific legal remedy, this court ought to assist by mandamus, upon reasons of justice as the writ expresses, and upon reasons of public policy, to preserve peace, order and good government." In the same case, he says, "this writ ought to be used upon all occasions where the law has established no specific remedy, and where in justice and good government there ought to be one."
. . .
This opinion seems not now for the first time, to be taken up in this country.
It must be well recollected that in 1792, an act passed, directing the Secretary of War to place on the pension list such disabled officers and soldiers as should be reported to him, by the circuit courts, which act, so far as the duty was imposed on the courts, was deemed unconstitutional; but some of the judges, thinking that the law might be executed by them in the character of commissioners, proceeded to act, and to report in that character.
This law being deemed unconstitutional at the circuits, was repealed, and a different system was established; but the question whether those persons who have been reported by the judges, as commissioners, were entitled, in consequence of that report, to be placed on the pension list, was a legal question, properly determinable in the courts, although the act of placing such persons on the list was to be performed by the head of a department.
That this question might be properly settled, congress passed an act in February, 1793, making it the duty of the secretary of War, in conjunction with the attorney general, to take such measures as might be necessary to obtain an adjudication of the Supreme Court of the United States on the validity of any such rights, claimed under the act aforesaid.
After the passage of this act, a mandamus was moved for, to be directed to the Secretary of War, commanding him to place on the pension list, a person stating himself to be on the report of the judges.
There is, therefore, much reason to believe, that this mode trying the legal right of the complainant was deemed by the head of a department, and by the highest law officer of the United States, the most proper which could be selected for the purpose.
When the subject was brought before the court, the decision was, not that a mandamus would not lie to the head of a department directing him to perform an act, enjoined by law, in the performance of which an individual had a vested interest; but that a mandamus ought not issue in that case; the decision necessarily to be made of the report of the commissioners did not confer on the applicant a legal right.
. . .
This, then, is a plain case for a mandamus, either to deliver the commission, or a copy of it from the record; and it only remains to be inquired,
Whether it can issue from this court.
The act to establish the judicial courts of the United States authorizes the Supreme court "to issue writs of mandamus in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States."
The Secretary of State, being a person holding an office under the authority of the United States, is precisely within the letter of the description, and if this court is not authorized to issue a writ of mandamus to such an officer, it must be because the law is unconstitutional, and therefore absolutely incapable of conferring the authority and assigning the duties which its words purport to confer and assign.
The constitution vests the whole judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court, and such inferior as congress shall, from time to time, ordain and establish. This power is expressly extended to all cases arising under the laws of the United States; and, consequently, in some form, may be exercised over the present case; because the right claimed is given by a law of the United States.
In the distribution of this power it is declared that "the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction."
It has been insisted, at the bar, that as the original grant of jurisdiction, to the Supreme and inferior courts, is general, and the clause, assigning original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court, contains no negative or restrictive words, the power remains to the legislature, to assign original jurisdiction to that court in other cases than those specified in the article which has been recited; provided those cases belong to the judicial power of the United States.
If it has been intended to leave it in the discretion of the legislature to apportion the judicial power between the supreme and inferior courts according to the will of that body, it would certainly have been useless to have proceeded further than to have defined the judicial power, and the tribunals in which it should be vested. The subsequent part of the section is mere surplusage, is entirely without meaning, if such is to be the construction. If congress remains at liberty to give this court appellate jurisdiction, where the constitution has declared their jurisdiction shall be original; and original jurisdiction where the constitution has declared it shall be appellate; the distribution of jurisdiction, made in the constitution, is form without substance.
Affirmative words are often, in their operation, negative of other objects than those affirmed; and in this case, a negative or exclusive sense must be given to them, or they have no operation at all.
It cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect; and, therefore, such a construction is inadmissible, unless the words require it.
If the solicitude of the convention, respecting our peace with foreign powers, induced a provision that the Supreme Court should take original jurisdiction in cases which might be supposed to affect them; yet the clause would have proceeded no further than to provide for such cases, if no further restriction on the powers of congress had been intended. That they should have appellate jurisdiction in all other cases, with such exceptions as congress might make, is no restriction; unless the words be deemed exclusive of original jurisdiction.
When an instrument organizing fundamentally a judicial system, divides it into one supreme, and so many inferior courts as the legislature may ordain and establish, then enumerates its powers, and proceeds so far to distribute them, as to define the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by declaring the cases in which it shall take original jurisdiction, and that in others it shall take appellate jurisdiction; the plain import of the words seems to be, that in one class of cases its jurisdiction is original, and not appellate; in the other it is appellate, and not original. If any other construction would render the clause inoperative, that is an additional reason for rejecting such other construction, and for adhering to their obvious meaning.
To enable this court, then, to issue a mandamus, it must be shown to be an exercise of appellate jurisdiction, or to be necessary to enable them to exercise appellate jurisdiction.
It has been stated at the bar that the appellate jurisdiction may be exercised in a variety of forms, and that if it be the will of the legislature that a mandamus should be used for that purpose, that will must be obeyed. This is true, yet the jurisdiction must be appellate, not original.
It is the essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction, that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a cause already instituted, and does not create that cause. Although, therefore, a mandamus may be directed to courts, yet to issue such a writ to an officer for the delivery of a paper, is in effect the same as to sustain an original action for that paper, and, therefore, seems not to belong to appellate, but to original jurisdiction. Neither is it necessary in such a case as this, to enable the court to exercise its appellate jurisdiction.
The authority, therefore, given to the Supreme court, by the act establishing the judicial courts of the United States, to issue writs of mandamus to public officers, appears not to be warranted by the constitution; and it becomes necessary to inquire whether a jurisdiction so conferred can be exercised.
The question, whether an act, repugnant to the constitution, can become the law of the land, is a question deeply interesting to the United States; but, happily, not of an intricacy proportioned to its interest. It seems only necessary to recognize certain principles, supposed to have been long and well established, to decide it.
That the people have an original right to establish, for their future government, such principles, as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected. The exercise of this original right is a very great exertion; nor can it, nor ought it, to be frequently repeated. The principles, therefore, so established, are deemed fundamental. And as the authority from which they proceed is supreme, and can seldom act, they are designed to be permanent.
This original and supreme will organizes the government and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here, or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments.
The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if those limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished, if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed, are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested, that the constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it; or, that the legislature may alter the constitution by an ordinary act.
Between these alternatives there is no middle ground. The constitution is either a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.
If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative contrary to the constitution is not law; if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.
Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and, consequently, the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void.
This theory is essentialy attached to a written constitution, and, is consequently, to be considered, by this court, as one of the fundamentals of our society. It is not therefore to be lost sight of in the further consideration of this subject.
If an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void, does it notwithstanding its invalidity, bind the courts, and oblige them to give it effect? Or, in other words, though it be not law, does it constitute a rule as operative as if it was a law? This would be to overthrow in fact what was established in theory; and would seem, at first view, an absurdity too gross to be insisted on. It shall, however, receive a more attentive consideration.
It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each.
So if a law in opposition to the constitution; if both the law and the constitution apply to a particular case, so that the court must either decide that case conformably to the law, disregarding the constitution; or conformably to the constitution, disregarding the law; the court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.
It, then, the courts are to regard the constitution, and the constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the constitution, and not such ordinary act, must govern the case to which they both apply.
Those, then, who controvert the principle that the constitution is to be considered, in court, as a paramount law, are reduced to the necessity of maintaining that courts must close their eyes on the constitution, and see only the law.
This doctrine would subvert the very foundation of all written constitutions. It would declare than an act which, according to the principles and theory of our government, is entirely void, is yet, in practice, completely obligatory. It would declare that it the legislature shall do what is expressly forbidden, such act, notwithstanding the express prohibition, is in reality effectual. It would be giving to the legislature a practical and real omnipotence, with the same breath which professes to restrict their powers within narrow limits. It is prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.
That it thus reduces to nothing what we have deemed the greatest improvement on political institutions, a written constitution, would of itself be sufficient, in America, where written constitutions have been viewed with so much reverence, for rejecting the construction. But the peculiar expressions of the constitution of the United States furnish additional arguments in favour of its rejection.
The judicial power of the United States is extended to all cases arising under the constitution.
Could it be the intention of those who gave this power, to say that in using it the constitution should not be looked into? That a case arising under the constitution should be decided without examining the instrument under which it arises?
This is too extravagant to be maintained.
In some cases, then, the constitution must be looked into by the judges. And if they can open it at all, what part of it are they forbidden to read or to obey?
There are many other parts of the constitution which serve to illustrate this subject.
It is declared that "no tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported for any state." Suppose a duty on the export of cotton, of tobacco, or of flour; and a suit instituted to recover it. Ought a judgment to be rendered in such a case? ought the judges to close their eyes on the constitution, and only see the law?
The constitution declares "that no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed."
If, however, such a bill should be passed, and a person should be prosecuted under it; must the court condemn to death those victims whom the constitution endeavours to preserve?
"No person," says the constitution, "shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court."
Here the language of the constitution is addressed especially to the courts. It prescribes, directly for them, a rule of evidence not to be departed from. If the legislature should change that rule, and declare on witness, or a confession out of court, sufficient for conviction, must the constitutional principle yield to the legislative act?
From these, and many other selections which might be made, it is apparent, that the framers of the constitution contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the legislature.
Why otherwise does it direct the judges to take an oath to support it? This oath certainly applies in an especial manner, to their conduct in their official character. How immoral to impose it on them, if they were to be used as the instruments, and the knowing instruments, for violating what they swear to support!
The oath of office, too, imposed by the legislature, is completely demonstrative of the legislative opinion on this subject. It is in these words: "I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich; and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent on me as ------, according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the constitution and laws of the United States."
Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the constitution of the United States, if that constitution forms no rule for his government--if it is closed upon him, and cannot be inspected by him?
If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe, or to take this oath, becomes equally a crime.
It is not entirely unworthy of observation, that in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the constitution itself is first mentioned; and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall be made in pursuance of the constitution, have that rank.
Thus, the particular phraseology of the constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.
The rule must be discharged.