When John Marshall was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1801, the country’s highest court occupied a modest position. There was no Supreme Court building in the newly completed capital of Washington, DC, so the six justices heard the cases in a borrowed room in the basement of the Capitol building. Their file had an average of 10 cases per year, mainly maritime disputes.
“Before John Marshall, the Supreme Court was irrelevant,” says Joel Richard Paul, professor of law at the University of California, Hastings School of Law and author of Unprecedented: Chief Justice John Marshall and his time.
But in Marshall’s 34-year tenure as Chief Justice, spanning six presidential administrations, making it the longest on record, the Supreme Court has grown in importance and power to become a true co-equal of executive and legislative powers. Some of the fundamental doctrines of American law, including the power of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitutionality of legislation and executive actions, were doctrines that had no precedent until Marshall created them.
“These were principles that Marshall invented to solve some of the problems that the framers of the Constitution had not quite solved,” says Paul, “like the relationship between federal courts and state courts, or the relationship between the powers of Congress and the powers of the President.
Along the way, Marshall used his remarkable intelligence and down-to-earth camaraderie to defeat his political enemies and make the Supreme Court a unified and dignified institution.
Marbury v. Madison — the Court claims its rightful place
Marshall began his tenure as Chief Justice during a tumultuous transition. It was the very first time that the presidency changed hands from one political party to another. Marshall was appointed by John Adams, a staunch federalist, but would serve under Adams’ political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican.
In the final months of his presidency, Adams quickly filled dozens of vacant judicial positions with federalists, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Marshall already served as Secretary of State under Adams). On the very last day of his tenure, Adams appointed 42 men to serve as justices of the peace, but Marshall, acting as secretary of state, did not have time to complete paperwork for four of the commissions, including one for a politician from Virginia. named William Marbury.
The minute Jefferson took office, he ordered his own Secretary of State, James Madison, to reject Marbury’s appointment along with the other three. Next, Congress, also controlled by the Democratic Republicans, launched impeachment proceedings against federalist judges, including a Supreme Court judge. As the story is generally told, Marbury decided to take a stand – he directly asked the Supreme Court to force Madison to hand over his commissions.
But while writing his book on Marshall, Paul discovered a different origin for the historical affair, Marbury v. Madison. Paul argues that the case was a “stunt” by Marshall himself “to assert the authority of the Court against Jefferson at a time when the very existence of the Supreme Court as an independent branch of government was threatened” .
Marbury was ultimately denied his request, but for reasons carefully and brilliantly set out by Marshall in his opinion. Marshall explained that Jefferson and Madison were wrong to block the nominations and that Marbury was within his rights to sue in federal court, but more importantly, Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by passing a law of 1789 allowing plaintiffs to sue directly. the Supreme Court.
Paul says that Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison was capital for two reasons. First, it was the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled that a law passed by Congress was unconstitutional. This alone established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the authority of the judicial branch to control the legislative branch of Congress.
Second, though not as well documented, is that Marbury v. Madison also showed that the federal judiciary has the power to verify the power of executive officers like Madison, who gave so little thought to Marbury’s petition that he didn’t bother to hire a lawyer. or attend the hearing.
“What Marshall is saying in this opinion is that the executive branch is not above the law,” says Paul. “It was unprecedented. Imagine where we would be today if federal courts did not have this power, like when the Supreme Court ordered Richard Nixon to hand over his tapes during Watergate. Nixon knew he was going to slit his throat, but he complied with the order, as Marshall established the court as a co-equal branch of government.
Under Marshall, unanimous decisions and a unified tribunal
Before Marshall joined the Supreme Court, the standard practice was for each judge to write their own opinion for each case. At that time, there were six judges on the court, so each case generated six potentially conflicting opinions. This made it almost impossible for Supreme Court decisions to carry the weight of a precedent, because even the judges could not come to an agreement.
When Marshall became chief justice, he insisted that the Supreme Court issue a single unified opinion for each case. This would send a clear signal that the Court has the final say on all constitutional matters and that its decisions set a precedent for all lower courts.
“Over the next 34 years the Marshall Tribunal rendered 1,129 decisions and all but 87 of those opinions were unanimous, which is unbelievable,” says Paul, especially because most of Marshall’s fellow judges have been appointed by Democratic-Republican presidents who disagree with Marshall’s federalist tendencies.
Part of Marshall’s brilliance was how he conquered his political rivals, both with his consensual legal arguments and his friendly personality. For example, he insisted that all judges share rooms at the same DC boarding house, where they ate all of their meals together and relaxed with afternoon wine tasting sessions.
“Marshall cultivated this ‘house of fellowship’ culture among the judges,” says Paul. “They really bonded. “
According to a popular tale, the judges made it a rule to drink wine only on rainy days. On sunny days, Marshall would have another judge check the window and see if it looked like rain. Everywhere the report, Marshall inevitably ordered wine, saying, “Our jurisdiction is so vast it might rain somewhere.”
Marshall Court Shapes America’s Legal System and Government
In a series of landmark cases, the Marshall Court has delivered unanimous opinions which have elevated the Supreme Court to the rank of ultimate arbiter of constitutional debates. Many of these decisions have shaped the very nature of American law and governance.
The main of the most influential decisions of the Marshall Tribunal was McCulloch v. Maryland, which pitted the states against the federal government over the issue of a national bank. States argued that the Constitution did not explicitly give Congress the power to establish a national bank, but supporters of the bank pointed to Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power “to do all laws which will be necessary and appropriate ”for the exercise of its enumerated powers.
As usual, Marshall drafted the unanimous opinion of the Court and his interpretation of the “necessary and proper” clause in McCulloch v. Maryland “has greatly expanded the powers of Congress,” says Paul. As long as the ending was “legitimate … [and] under the Constitution, “Marshall wrote, Congress can use” any means appropriate. . . which are not prohibited.
While McCulloch v. Maryland was ostensibly about the national bank, it also set the stage for another battle between the federal government and the states: Did Congress have the right to regulate or prohibit slavery in the states.
Marshall owned slaves on his property in Virginia, but he opposed slavery as an institution, Paul says. McCulloch’s decision was seen at the time as an open invitation from the Supreme Court to Congress to step in and end slavery, which angered southern states.
Subsequent opinions issued by the Marshall Court protected Native American tribal lands from private land sales (Johnson v. M’Intosh), fought monopolies by giving Congress clear power to regulate interstate commerce (Gibbons v. Ogden) and have established that the state cannot interfere with contracts between private parties (Dartmouth College v. Woodward).
“There was no other Supreme Court justice like John Marshall,” says Paul, “and no one who has had a more lasting influence on what has become of our country. “