Monday, January 24, 2005

John Marshall and the Supreme Court

John Marshall served as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835. He came to the position at a time when the Court did not hold a high place in the Federal Government and was viewed as a toothless body with little or not standing.

The great Constitutional decisions that Marshall penned and led, among them Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland and the Dartmouth College case, helped shape the Court and brought a standing of prestige, honor and power to the judiciary. More importantly, Marshall defined the role of the Court. Through the decisions of the Marshall Court, the U.S. Supreme Court became the ultimate voice on Constitutional matters in the United States. It laid out that the Court had the right to declare acts of Congress or the States unconstitutional, protected the rights of individuals against the Government, held that the Constitution took precedence over conflicting States’ laws, and helped navigate the international relations of the country although only when laws were at issue, and not when politics came into play.

Through John Marshall’s leadership, the Court became an organized body, with a much-needed unanimity of voice and purpose. His place as Chief Justice secured for the Court a legitimacy necessary for its own existence, but also for the longevity of the United States.

The Marshall Court’s long tenure defined the Court’s place in the Federal Government on equal footing with that of the Executive and Legislative bodies. His death on July 6, 1835, brought forth the occasion for the ringing of the Liberty Bell to honor his greatness. It was that day that the bell was first cracked (this is disputed).

Having just finished a thorough biography of John Marshall, I am struck by his greatness for a singular reason. Much as the Presidency is diminished by its present occupant, perhaps sullied forever, so to has the U.S. Supreme Court been brought low in the last four years by the present composition of its members.

The political nature of the Court in the 2000 election, and the obviously partisan nature of its decisions weakened it to a point that John Marshall could only recognize as similar to the one he inherited in 1801. The unwillingness of the Conservatives to seek out unanimity and instead force the will of their position on the entire Court would be further anethema to Marshall’s concepts of how the Court should behave. Lastly, the very notion that someone so completely lacking in qualification to even serve as an Associate Justice on the Court, as is the case of Clarence Thomas, could even be mentioned as a possible Chief Justice, furthers dissipates the great place the Court once held.

Just as Washington, Jefferson and Madison would look on what George Bush’s Presidency is with much dismay, it is safe to assume that John Marshall and his brethren would view the current U.S. Supreme Court in a likewise fashion.

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