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The Supreme Court

Marshall Steps In

When John Adams appointed John Marshall chief justice in 1801 (just before he left the presidency), Marshall took over a weakened court that was so low on the priority list Congress did not even see the need to provide it with a place to meet. No building was planned for it when the Congress appropriated money to build the federal buildings in its new capital, Washington, D.C., in 1800. Instead its chambers were relegated to a committee room beneath the House Chamber.

One of Marshall's first acts to take control of the situation was to change the way the Court dished out its opinions. Rather than have each justice read his own opinion, Marshall got the justices to agree the court should have one opinion delivered orally. During his tenure, Marshall delivered the opinions on all the critical cases. A judge did have the right to read a dissenting opinion.

Low esteem for the Supreme Court was not its only problem. The Court also played the role of political football between the Federalists and the Republicans. In 1800 the Federalists lost the battle and were getting ready to give up control of both the executive and legislative branches.

Official portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted by Rembrant Peale.

Official portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted by Rembrant Peale. (Photograph by Vic Boswell from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Just the Facts

Marshall studied law for only about a month at the College of William and Mary in Virginia before being admitted to the bar in 1780. He then practiced law for 20 years in Virginia, representing land owners. He was the oldest of 15 children from one of the leading families of Fauquier County, Virginia. His love of the country and support for a strong federal government came primarily from his boyhood friendship with George Washington, who he served under as a captain at Valley Forge.

One of the Federalists' last acts before losing control was to pass the Judiciary Act of 1801 on February 13, 1801, which made major changes in the makeup of the judiciary. While the act did include the desired reform that relieved Supreme Court justices of their dreaded circuit court duties, it also created a new layer of judges at the district and circuit court levels that could quickly be appointed by outgoing Federalist President John Adams. This would give the Federalists at least some control of the judiciary branch after they left office.

Within two weeks, John Adams nominated and the Congress confirmed the appointments of these new judges. The task had to be done so quickly that the commissions for many of these new judges were completed on John Adams' last day in office by, guess who, Secretary of State John Marshall. He had been appointed as Secretary of State in 1800 and continued to serve in that post even after being appointed chief justice.

Court Connotations

A lame-duck Congress is a Congress that meets after the election in November and before the new Congress takes over.

These last minute appointees were dubbed the “midnight judges” by the Republicans because the lame-duck Congress worked late into the night to confirm all the judges just before a March 3 midnight deadline when the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson would take office. One story about the incident even says that John Marshall was asked to leave his office at midnight by Levi Lincoln, Jefferson's incoming Attorney General, but this is probably a tale told by some Republicans to make the changeover more dramatic.

This last-minute flurry of activity did leave a mess for both sides to clean up and set the stage for a landmark decision of the Supreme Court, Marbury v. Madison, which we'll discuss later. The Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 on March 8, 1802, abolished the new courts and made no provision for the newly appointed judges. Instead Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1802, moving the Court's next term, which had been scheduled to begin June 1802, to February 1803. The Republicans did not want the Supreme Court to rule immediately on the constitutionality of the 1802 law because they also had plans to impeach some federal judges and possibly even Supreme Court justices, which they hoped to do before the Supreme Court could meet to make a ruling on the Judiciary Act.

Republicans hoped that by impeaching some justices they could have more support for their position on the Court. The Marshall Court did uphold the constitutionality of the Judiciary Act of 1802 in a March 1803 decision, Stuart v. Laird.

Supreme Sayings

“Why the six Republicans broke party ranks and voted not guilty on all counts is not completely clear. Most believe that a good part of their reluctance to convict was a recognition that a healthy nation required a truly independent judiciary—a judiciary whose members could make decisions, sometimes even politicized decisions that could later be assailed as legally erroneous, without fear of reprisal.”

—Sandra Day O'Connor in her book, The Majesty of the Law

Only one federal judge was actually impeached because of gross misconduct. There was an attempt to impeach the most political Supreme Court justice at the time, Samuel Chase, who worked to reelect John Adams. Bernard Schwartz writes in his book, A History of the Supreme Court, that Senator William Branch Giles, Jefferson's leader in the Senate, told John Quincy Adams that the Chase impeachment was part of a greater plan to replace judges with ones more to the liking of the Republicans. He quotes a letter from John Quincy Adams to his father, “The assault upon Judge Chase was unquestionably intended to pave the way for another prosecution, which would have swept the Supreme Judicial Branch clean at a stroke.”

Luckily for the nation, there were enough defectors from Jefferson's own party to defeat the conviction of Chase. The Senate had 25 Republicans and nine Federalists. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority for impeachment, so 23 votes were needed for success. Republicans could only find 19 votes in favor of impeachment because 6 decided to vote against impeaching Chase, so the impeachment move was defeated.

The most political time for the Court is when a new justice is being confirmed by the Senate. Imagine what the Supreme Court would be like if impeachments were more common each time the control of Congress changed parties. The legislative branch would have much greater power over the politics of the Court if a judge who displeased the current Congress politically could be impeached for his or her politics. Although this might please you if you disagree with the politics of some of today's justices, the balance of power would then be out of whack and the legislative branch could wield much more power over the judicial branch.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


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