Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case: Marbury v Madison

The Midnight Appointments

Author Cliff Sloan and Yale Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar explained the "midnight appointments" by John Adams and how they led to the Supreme Court Case Marbury v. Madison.


The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. Its rulings on cases determine the meaning of laws and acts of Congress and the president. Knowing the key decisions of the Supreme Court and the precedents they set is vital in understanding the meaning of laws, how our country has changed over time, and the direction the country is currently headed. In this lesson students will examine the case of Marbury v. Madison.


  • STEP 1.

    As a class, view the following video and answer the questions below to lay the foundation for students to understand this case:

    VIDEO CLIP: The Midnight Appointments and Background of the Case (9:29)

    • Explain the midnight appointments and why John Adams felt it was important to make them.

    • What happened to some of the commissions prior to Adams leaving office? Why was this significant?

    • Describe the letter from Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams and what it illustrated about the midnight appointments.

    • Why did Thomas Jefferson take the appointments so personally? How did this affect his actions once he became president?
  • STEP 2.

    Students can either work independently or in groups to view the following video clips. They should take notes using the handout below:

    Handout: Supreme Court Case: Marbury v. Madison (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP: The Election of 1800 (6:01)

    • Explain where John Adams was in his political career leading up to the Election of 1800.

    • Describe the unique situation of having John Adams and Thomas Jefferson running against each other in the election of 1800.

    • Explain the results of the Presidential election of 1800.

    • What was the “wrinkle” in the results of the election? How did it end up getting resolved?
  • VIDEO CLIP: 3 Central Questions (4:37)

    • What were the three central questions of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison? How did Chief Justice John Marshall answer each question?

    • According to Akhil Reed Amar, what would the proper ordering and issues of the questions be for Chief Justice John Marshall? Why did he “invert” the questions?

    • Describe the Supreme Court’s authority that was described and created in the Marbury v. Madison decision. Why did the decision prove critical throughout United States history?
  • VIDEO CLIP: The Significance of the Decision (1:31)

    • According to Cliff Sloan, what is the significance of the Marbury v. Madison decision to our Constitutional system?

    • Explain the concept of judicial review that resulted in the Marbury v. Madison decision.
  • STEP 3.

    As a class, discuss the significance of this case, the precedent it set, and its legacy.

  • STEP 4.

    Choose an activity from C-SPAN Classroom's Deliberations site to engage in a structured student-centered analysis of the case.


    Argumentative Essay Free Response Question- Respond to this writing prompt presented in the style of the Argumentative Question component of the redesigned AP Government and Politics exam.

Additional Resource


  • Aaron Burr
  • Abigail Adams
  • Democratic-republican
  • Electoral College
  • Enmity
  • Federalists
  • Inauguration
  • Incumbent
  • John Adams
  • John Marshall
  • Judicial Review
  • Judiciary
  • Jurisdiction
  • Lame-duck
  • Partisan
  • Recuse
  • Repudiate
  • Secretary Of State
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Treason
  • William Marbury
  • Writ Of Mandamus


Judicial BranchSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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