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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: A Black Robe--Symbol of Civic Virtue and Constitutional Principles

John Marshall’s black robe, worn during his service as chief justice of the Supreme Court (1801-1835), is displayed today at the John Marshall House in Richmond, Virginia. It is a symbol of Marshall’s tenure on the Supreme Court.

President John Adams appointed Marshall to be chief justice in 1801 as one of his final actions before leaving office. Adams’ first choice for the job had been John Jay, who previously had served as the first chief justice. Jay, however, declined because in his view, widely shared at the time, the Supreme Court was too weak and unimportant; he said that he would not be head of "a system so defective." So John Marshall took the job and transformed it into the most powerful and prominent judicial position in the world.

Marshall brought unity and order to the Court by practically ending seriatim opinions (the writing of opinions by various justices). He influenced the Court’s majority to speak with one voice, through one opinion for the Court on each case before it. Of course, members of the Court occasionally wrote concurring or dissenting opinions, as they do today.

Often the Court’s voice was John Marshall’s. During his 34 years on the Court, the longest tenure of any chief justice, Marshall wrote 519 of the 1,100 opinions issued during that period, and he dissented only eight times. Chief Justice Marshall’s greatest opinions were masterworks of legal reasoning and graceful writing. They stand today as an authoritative commentary on the core principles of the U.S. Constitution.

Marshall’s first great decision came in Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which he ruled that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was void because it violated Article 3 of the Constitution. In this opinion, Marshall made a compelling argument for judicial review, the Court’s power to decide whether an act of Congress violates the Constitution. If it does, Marshall wrote, then the legislative act contrary to the Constitution is unconstitutional, or illegal, and cannot be enforced. Marshall wrote, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.... So if a law be in opposition to the Constitution...the Constitution and not such ordinary Act, must govern the case to which they both apply."

In a series of significant decisions, Marshall also established, beyond legal challenge, the Court’s power of judicial review over acts of state government. In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), and Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Marshall wrote for the Court that acts of state government in violation of federal statutes or the federal Constitution were unconstitutional or void.

The Marshall Court’s decisions also defended the sanctity of contracts and private property rights against would-be violators in the cases of Fletcher v. Peck and Dartmouth College v. Woodward. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Marshall broadly interpreted Congress’ power to regulate commerce (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution) and prohibited states from passing laws to interfere with the flow of goods and transportation across state lines.

Chief Justice Marshall’s greatest opinions protected private property rights as a foundation of individual liberty. They also rejected claims of state sovereignty in favor of a federal Constitution based on the sovereignty of the people of the United States acting through a strong central government. Finally, Marshall clearly and convincingly argued for the Constitution as a permanent supreme law that the Supreme Court was established to interpret and defend. "Ours is a Constitution," Marshall wrote in 1819 (McCulloch v. Maryland), "intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs."

According to Marshall, only through broad construction of the federal government’s powers could the Constitution of 1787 be adapted to meet changing times. And only through strict limits on excessive use of the government’s powers could the Constitution endure as a guardian of individual rights. The special duty of the Supreme Court was to make the difficult judgments, based on the Constitution, about when to impose limits or to permit broad exercise of the federal government’s powers.

In 1833, near the end of John Marshall’s career, his associate on the Supreme Court, Justice Joseph Story, wrote a "Dedication to John Marshall" that included these words of high praise: "Your expositions of constitutional law...constitute a monument of fame far beyond the ordinary memorials of political or military glory. They are destined to enlighten, instruct and convince future generations; and can scarcely perish but with the memory of the Constitution itself." And so it has been, from Marshall’s time until our own, that his judgments and commentaries on the Constitution have instructed and inspired Americans.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What civic virtues did John Marshall exhibit during his 34 years as chief justice of the Supreme Court?

2. What are the main constitutional principles that Marshall upheld as chief justice? What examples or cases can be cited to show his commitment to certain constitutional principles?

3. How did Marshall transform the role and image of the Supreme Court during his tenure as chief justice?

Reading 2 was compiled and adapted from John J. Patrick, The Young Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 194-195.

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