This question pertains to Marbury v. Madison. I'm a bit unsure as to why SCOTUS ruled the way it did.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 (Section 13):

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."

Article III of Constitution, Section. 2

...In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

Interpretation 1: I think the most likely reason that Marshall's Supreme Court overturned the Judiciary Act of 1789(Section 13) was because the Judiciary Act wasn't an amendment. In that case though, Article III, Section. 2 doesn't explicitly state "amendment" but instead says "regulation." I would think the Judiciary Act qualifies as an exception which is a regulation that Congress has made, so I am confused.

Interpretation 2: The bolded and italicized part of Article III just means that SCOTUS has the power to enforce Congressional legislation, just with appellate jurisdiction and written in non-colloquial language.

As I'm writing this question, the more I can see that Marshall's Court was siding with Interpretation 2. However, I still can't wrap my head around the "exceptions" part of Article III. What does the Constitution mean here?

EDIT: The Marshall court declared Marbury was not able to have his commission as a judge because the Supreme Court didn't have original jurisdiction in issuing writs of mandamus, and Marbury's case was taken directly to the Supreme Court, rather than a lower court. But, my main question remains, was that the "correct" way to interpret the Constitution? I'm not sure why my first interpretation is wrong.

  • 1
    You question jumps in mid-thought, leaving an incomplete expression of whatever idea you were trying to express. It sounds like you are looking for help understanding a particular case, perhaps Marbury v. Madison, but you don't say so.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 2:09
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    I understand "such exceptions and such regulations" as applying to "appellate jurisdiction". So SCOTUS by default has appellate jurisdiction over "all other cases", but Congress can carve out exceptions to that jurisdiction, or create other regulations about when it applies. It doesn't give Congress authority to impose arbitrary regulations on other aspects of the Supreme Court's functions. Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 3:47
  • @ohwilleke Sorry, you're completely right. This is about Marbury v. Madison! Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 21:33

2 Answers 2


The Judiciary Act attempted to extend the court’s original jurisdiction - Congress can’t do that

The Constitution limits the court’s original jurisdiction to “all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party.”

The Judiciary Act purported to give the court original jurisdiction with respect to writs of mandamus to all cases. No can do.


Here's how article 3 is logically structured:

  1. If A: SCOTUS has original jurisdiction.
  2. If not A (everything else under consideration): SCOTUS has appellate jurisdiction.
  3. Congress may impose exceptions and regulations to those things falling under item 2.

In particular, the exceptions and regulations apply only to those not belonging to situation A (consuls, ambassadors, etc.). And the first item grants original jurisdiction to situation A cases, and situation A cases only. The clause you want to modify the original jurisdiction clause is in a separate sentence entirely, and as a sub-clause it is only modifying the sentence it is within.

Marbury v. Madison then notes that Congress is subsequently not granted any authority to modify the original jurisdiction of SCOTUS, either here or anywhere else in the constitution. Since nobody else is granted such authority either, only what is in the constitution can specify where SCOTUS has original jurisdiction, and what it grants that on fails to cover the case at hand.

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