Our Greatest Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

“My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.” – John Adams 

This week (Feb. 4) in 1801 John Marshall was sworn in as chief justice of the Supreme Court.  Marshall would serve in that position for 34 years, while writing the most important Supreme Court decision in American history, Marbury v. Madison, which gave the Supreme Court the power of “judicial review,” thereby making the court the ultimate authority over what was or wasn’t constitutional.  That gave the Supreme Court, which previously had been the “weak sister” among the three branches of government, the necessary authority to check the other branches and — as the Constitution intended — maintain the balance of power among those three branches,.   Thus is Marshal considered the greatest Supreme Court chief justice in American history.

Interestingly, his appointment was chiefly a political one.  In the election of 1800, President John Adams had lost his bid for re-election to Thomas Jefferson, whose Democratic-Republican Party also won control of Congress.  As a result, Adams, the leader of the Federalist Party, wanted to ensure that at least one branch of the government had a Federalist influence.  So he appointed Marshall, a loyal Federalist, to the court.  Adams knew that Supreme Court justices were appointed for life, and since Marshall was only 45 years old, his influence on the court would be a prolonged one.

Marbury v. Madison being the most famous example of that influence, and, ironically, had the case been argued today, Marshall would have had to recuse himself.  That is because, in addition to appointing Marshall to the highest court, just before leaving office Adams appointed dozens of other Federalist judges to the lower courts.  However, although Adams had signed those appointments, they weren’t considered valid until they had been “sealed” (stamped) and delivered by the secretary of state, who at the time was … John Marshall.  Unfortunately, Marshall was unable to stamp and deliver every appointment, so when Jefferson was sworn in as president (by Chief Justice Marshall) he promptly instructed his secretary of state, James Madison, to ignore those non-delivered appointments, one of which was William Marbury’s, who promptly sued for his judgeship.

Marshall ruled that Marbury was constitutionally entitled to his appointment, but that in this instance the court lacked the legal authority to enforce it.  This deftly avoided defying Jefferson, who would have ignored a ruling giving Marbury his appointment, while upholding the court’s ultimate authority to interpret the Constitution.  That larger principle and the power it gave the court was far more important than the actual ruling, and — as Adams envisioned — Marshall would shape the Supreme Court’s direction for many years to come.