The Marshall Court, the era of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835 associated with the chief justiceship of John Marshall—long considered America’s first great chief justice—is significant in the development and prestige of the Court.
Chief Justice Marshall limited the practice of seriatim opinions by getting the justices together in conference to discuss and often come to an agreement on the legal questions of a case. He usually wrote the opinion of the Court or assigned it to an associate justice. The Marshall Court was important in the development of judicial review, the process by which courts review and rule in the law on the constitutionality of acts of the legislative and executive branches, giving the judiciary a key constitutional role in American government. Although beginning in state courts in the 1780s, given the chief justice’s brilliant explanation and justification of it in his opinion for the Court, Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803) (which struck down as unconstitutional the mandamus clause of Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789) became the main precedent for judicial review.
When the Marshall Court began, it consisted of all Federalist justices, with Thomas Jefferson president and the Republicans in control of Congress. Afraid that the Federalists would use the judiciary to check the other branches, Republicans were apprehensive over Marbury, where potentially a mandamus court order could be issued to James Madison, secretary of state. Although the Court backed down, not wanting a conflict that could weaken it and the national government, many Republicans remained critical of Federalist judges. Appointed during John Adams’s presidency, Marshall had earlier defended the Sedition Act and opposed the Virginia Resolutions of 1798; Samuel Chase was remembered for the partisan way he had presided over Sedition Act cases. Indeed, the extreme wing of the Republican Party impeached Chase but failed to convict him in the Senate trial.
The Marshall Court was successful in achieving two major Federalist goals. First, it applied a constitutional check on the states. Also, the Court broadly interpreted the Constitution to develop the national government. In the best example, in a double judicial review case, McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheaton 316 (1819), the Court used implied powers to uphold a federal action while striking down a state action. Except for Marbury, all of the Court’s judicial review cases striking down legislative acts were against states. Many of these came to the Supreme Court upon a writ of error through Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Court became engaged in a test of wills with the Virginia high court and its leading judge, Spencer Roane, over judicial review and federal appellate power over state courts in cases such as Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1 Wheaton 304, 1816)and Cohens v. Virginia (6 Wheaton 264, 1821). The Court was highly criticized for its nationalist decisions by the states’ rights Old Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats.
Second, the Marshall Court pursued the Federalist goal of supporting commercial and creditor interests against state support for popular, farmer, and debtor interests. The Court used the contract clause—‘‘No State shall . . . pass any . . . Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts’’—as the main protection for property rights against the states. State actions were struck down in cases such as Fletcher v. Peck (6 Cranch 87, 1810), Dartmouth College v. Woodward (4 Wheaton 518, 1819), and Sturges v. Crowninshield (4 Wheaton 122, 1819). In Fletcher, Chief Justice Marshall, in the opinion of the Court, said that in its restrictions on the states, Article I, Section 10 ‘‘contains what may be deemed a bill of rights for the people of each state.’’
He broadly defined contracts to include not just private contracts between citizens but also public ones including government grants of land, and, in Dartmouth College, to include charters of incorporation. He stated that individuals’ property rights conferred by the contract clause were to be protected at court. In Sturges, which involved a state bankruptcy law, The chief justice returned to the Federalist view of the creditor–debtor relations of the 1780s and recalled the stay laws, the issue of paper money, making paper and commodities legal tender, and all of ‘‘the peculiar evils of the day.’’ Against ‘‘so much mischief,’’ the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ‘‘intended to establish a great principle, that contracts should be inviolable.’’
The Marshall Court also struck down state acts in violation of other clauses in Section 10 such as ‘‘No state shall . . . emit Bills of Credit’’ as in Craig v. Missouri, 4 Peters 410 (1830). The Court, however, did not review state actions in terms of common-law rights or the Bill of Rights. Republicans opposed the assertion of a federal common law and were relieved when, in United States v. Hudson and Goodwin, 7 Cranch 32(1812), the Court ruled that the federal judiciary did not have a common-law criminal jurisdiction. In Barron v. Baltimore, 7 Peters 243 (1833), the Court ruled that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states. Chief Justice Marshall looked to ‘‘the history of the day.’’ It was ‘‘universally understood’’ that during the ratification debate the anti-Federalists demanded a bill of rights, almost every ratifying convention recommended amendments, and Congress proposed and the states ratified the Bill of Rights with safeguards against the new federal government, not the states.
As Federalists left, to be replaced by Republican appointments, the Court benefited from having Joseph Story, a professor of law at Harvard who wrote learned court opinions and legal and constitutional treatises. As the Court shifted, however, from consisting of Federalist to Republican and Democrat appointments, with changing political and ideological views, The chief justice found it harder to maintain agreement among the justices. The Court became divided and dissents increased. With the Court, as with the country, it appeared that much of what Chief Justice Marshall had worked for was threatened by the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson and states’ rights Democrats.
The Marshall Court did not leave a strong legacy in the protection of civil liberties. It was active in property rights but this became less valued by the Court in the twentieth century, and the Barron doctrine has been practically reversed. Its precedents, however, would be used later for federal judicial power. The Marshall Court’s main contribution to civil liberties was laying a foundation for nationalism, a broad interpretation of the Constitution, and judicial review.
F. THORNTON MILLER
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833); Bill of Rights: Structure; Chase, Samuel; Constitutional Convention of 1787; Jackson, Andrew; Jefferson, Thomas; Judicial Review; Kentucky and Virginia Resolves; Madison, James; Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803); Marshall, John; McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819); Story, Joseph