Week Five – The Supreme Court

Chief Justice John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, presided over the court for over 34 years, from his appointment in February 1801 until his death in July 1835. As the longest-serving Chief Justice in United States history, he was tasked with leading the highest judicial power in the land in many of its most momentous decisions. Chief Justice Marshall had a “forceful personality”, which “allowed him to dominate his fellow Justices”. Consequently, he wrote most of the decisions handed down by his court and only once found himself on the dissenting side of the case.

(Wikipedia, 2007) Because of his strong leadership during the formative years of both the Supreme Court as well as the United States of America, many of his cases continue to impact American jurisprudence today. Among his best-remembered and most-significant cases were Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, Barron v. Baltimore and Gibbons v. Ogden. In an article produced for FindLaw. com, Professor Joel B. Grossman of Johns Hopkins University discussed the continuing impact of the Marshall Court decision in Marbury v. Madison, two hundred years after the fact.

In that case, Marbury was granted one of several appointments as Justice of the Peace by outgoing President John Adams. These commissions were granted at the very end of his presidency, however, and many were not delivered on time by then-Secretary of State John Marshall. Incoming President Thomas Jefferson ordered the remaining commissions not be delivered by his Secretary of State, James Madison. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court, then headed by the same John Marshall, to compel the delivery of the remaining commissions. The Court declined to side with Marbury, and thus the first test of judicial review was passed.

The issue analyzed and decided upon in this case was whether Congress had the right to modify the jurisdiction granted the Supreme Court by the Constitution, and the clear answer was that it did not. Because of the strong stance adopted by the court, the relevance of this case remains today. Grossman states that a lasting legacy is “Marshall’s efforts to protect the Court by avoiding a major brawl with Jefferson have been replayed time and again, as the Supreme Court has deferred to the President in reviewing his authority, particularly in times of war and emergency”. (Grossman, 2003)

In the cases of McCulloch v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden and Barron v. Baltimore, the extent of the power and reach of the Federal government was tested and re-tested by the Marshall Court. In McCulloch, the argument was whether the Federal government was granted sufficient power by the Constitution to institute a Federal bank, which could not be taxed by the State of Maryland. The finding in that case was that the Federal government is entitled to certain implied powers, because the Framers of the Constitution “could not anticipate every power that Congress would need in future decades and centuries”.

(Supreme Court Historical Society, 2002) The lasting impact of this holding is that the Federal government cannot be held strictly to the words of the Constitution in justifying their actions, but that their actions can be found necessary and proper in accordance with Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution. Another clarification and perceived expansion on Federal powers occurred in Gibbons v.

Ogden, when the Court held that the Federal government could create legislation guiding interstate commerce and that legislation could be applied to any company whose business touched more than just the state in which it was located. This builds the basis for interstate commerce today. Finally, the Court narrowly interpreted the reach of Federal rights and responsibilities in Barron v. Baltimore, finding that a state or local entity could not be held to the same standards stated in the Fifth Amendment that applied to the Federal government.

This has created a lasting legacy of State vs. Federal rights and responsibilities and the decision helped lead to the ratification of the 14th Amendment providing responsibilities to the State similar to those granted the Federal government. Through narrowing, broadening, restricting and careful analysis of dozens of cases in a thirty-four year period, the Marshall Court provided more lasting legal precedents now recognized within American Jurisprudence than any other Courts going forward to the present.