Marshall Court

"With great power comes great responsibility." Whether we're talking about comic superheroes or key governmental figures, the saying holds true. The immense power the Supreme Court holds today can be traced back to one Chief Justice, John Marshall. Under his leadership, The Marshall Court changed the history of the judiciary from the weakest branch of government to one with the incredible authority to interpret the Constitution’s laws and even strike down the acts of other branches. In this summary, we examine the key court cases and the impact of the Marshall Court.

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Table of contents

    The Definition of the Marshall Court

    The Marshall Court refers to the tenure of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835 and the impact his role had on American history. The Marshall Court's rulings in several key cases had a tremendous effect on the scope and authority of the judicial branch.

    John Marshall Chief Justice Supreme Court StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall by Henry Inman, 1832

    Federalists vs Democratic-Republicans

    The first American political parties were established in the 1790s during the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams. They were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.

    Federalists supported a strong, centralized government. They saw the future of the United States as a powerful, industrialized nation. Federalists preferred that the Constitution be interpreted broadly, allowing the federal government to assume powers deemed necessary for the successful advancement of the nation. Early American Federalists included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall.

    Democratic-Republicans favored leaving power in the hands of the states. They envisioned the United States as a nation that would prosper as an agricultural powerhouse. They preferred that the Constitution be interpreted in a narrow way, allowing only what is specifically mentioned to be regarded as law. Democratic-Republican party members included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams.

    The 1800 Presidential Election

    The presidential election of 1800 marked the first presidential party change in American history. Outgoing Federalist, John Adams, would be replaced by Democratic-Republican President Thomas Jefferson.

    At this time, the Democratic-Republican Party dominated the executive and legislative branches while the Federalists controlled the judicial branch. The tension between the interests of these two parties at the beginning of the 19th century was the backdrop to many of the decisions of the Marshall Court.

    With the shift in political parties, concern arose for the fate of the judiciary. It had previously been the weakest branch of government. Federalists had recently reduced the Supreme Court from 6 to 5 justices and created new circuit courts. Before Jefferson’s swearing-in, John Adams nominated 42 justices of the peace to serve in the Federal Courts. Because this transpired at the very end of Adam's presidency, the appointees were referred to as “midnight judges.” This upset the Democratic-Republicans who rightly perceived Adam’s appointments as a last-minute Federalist power grab.

    Marshall Court Rulings

    Marbury v Madison Marshall Court StudySmarterFig. 2 - Marbury v. Madison quote, John Marshall, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0

    The Marshall Court Case of Marbury v. Madison

    The 1803 Marshall Court case of Marbury v. Madison emerged from the dispute between outgoing Federalists and incoming Democratic-Republicans over Adam’s midnight appointments. After President Jefferson was sworn in, he learned what Adams had done. In response, Jefferson told his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to distribute the judgeships. One of the prospective justices who didn’t receive his appointment was William Marbury.

    When Marbury learned that the letter confirming his appointment hadn’t been delivered, he sued Madison. Marbury cited the Judiciary Act of 1789 in his claim, which established how the federal courts should function in the United States.

    John Marshall surprised everyone when he ruled against Marbury. Marshall could not require Madison to deliver the appointment to Marbury. Instead, he led the court in making a judgment against Marbury on the grounds that the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional.

    Before this, there was no established authority on who could judge the validity of federal laws. Marshall increased the Supreme Court’s power tremendously by designating it as the institution that would have the final say when it came to judicial review, or the power to determine whether or not a law is constitutional. The “weakest branch” had been empowered to determine the constitutionality of decisions made by the executive and legislative branches.

    McCulloch v. Maryland

    In 1819, Chief Justice Marshall ruled on the McCulloch v. Maryland case. The state of Maryland had attempted to tax a branch of the National Bank. There was a dispute around whether or not the National Bank was legitimate under the Constitution.

    Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton debated whether or not forming a National Bank was within the scope of the federal government. Justice Marshall concluded that while the Constitution doesn’t directly address the legality of the National Bank, it gave the federal government the right to create one.

    The Supreme Court ruled that the Bank of the United States was a legal institution and that the state could not tax it. The Supreme Court assumed implied power to grant more authority to the federal government over the state. Implied powers are powers that aren’t directly mentioned in the Constitution but are assumed to exist for the federal government. McCulloch v. Maryland is another example of a Marshall Court case where the power of judicial review and the supreme authority of the federal government is asserted.

    Gibbons v. Ogden

    This Gibbons v. Ogden dispute of 1824 was another important case within the Marshall Court. The case came out of a conflict between New York and New Jersey concerning who could control trade on the Hudson River. The Marshall Court ruled that the states' attempts to control trade were unconstitutional. The Gibbons v. Ogden decision cemented the federal government authority over interstate commerce. Again, federal law takes priority over state law.

    Impact of the Marshall Court

    It is emphatically, the province and duty of the judicial department, to say what the law is."

    -Supreme Court Justice John Marshall

    The rulings of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall secured the role of the judiciary as the branch of government that would interpret the constitution as well as support federal authority over state rights.

    photo of Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C., Marshall Court, StudySmarterFigure 3, Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C., Pixabay.

    The issue of federal power versus state authority is revisited throughout American history. One example occurred with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which rendered racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Several states defied the ruling and would not integrate their schools. Another example involves same-sex marriage in which state and federal laws have come into conflict several times.

    Due to the increase in the authority of the Supreme Court, enormous power is granted to Supreme Court Justices. Justices have a major role in deciding cases that can fundamentally impact the future of the United States. Because the president nominates Justices to the Supreme Court, they also carry an immense amount of power.

    The Significance of the Marshall Court

    The power and reach of the Supreme Court grew under the leadership of John Marshall. Marshall is quite possibly the most important Supreme Court Justice of all time. He established the judicial review of laws and set the precedent that federal law could trump the states.

    Marshall Court - Key takeaways

    • Beginning with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, a major change occurred in the power and function of the Supreme Court, largely due to Chief Justice John Marshall.
    • The election of Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican constituted the first change in the political party in the White House. Federalists were not happy and Adams, the outgoing President, nominated many Federalist federal judges to try and hoard power in the Federalists' hands.
    • Marbury, a prospective federal judge sued Madison for failure to deliver his letter of appointment. The Marshall Court ruled against Marbury, citing that the Judiciary Act of 1789 was unconstitutional.
    • This landmark ruling set the legal precedent for the Supreme Court to interpret laws and, the power to render them unconstitutional.
    • Marshall Court cases McCulloch v. Maryland and Gibbons v. Ogden additionally strengthened the newly established power of the Supreme Court and demonstrated the power of the Supreme Court to assert federal over state laws.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Marshall Court

    What was so special about the Marshall Court?

    John Marshall made several strategic rulings that dramatically increased the power of the Supreme Court. Prior to his role as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the judiciary was a weak branch of government. By the end of his tenure, the Supreme Court had the power to decide whether or not laws were constitutional.

    What was the most famous Marshall Court case?

    The Marshall Court case is the seminal case of Marbury v Madison. Marbury was appointed by Adams to a federal judgeship. Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State did not deliver his appointment letter. Marbury sued and the court ruled against him, but simultaneously declared the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional. The importance of this decision is in the increase of power the Supreme Court receives in its ability to render a law unconstitutional.

    What did the decisions of the Marshall Court do?

    The decisions of the Marshall Court increased the power of the federal government over the states and established the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution.

    What was the impact of the Marshall Court on the U.S. Government?

    The Marshall Court made the judicial branch equal to the executive and legislative branches. Some would argue that the judicial branch holds the ultimate power because of its ability to render laws unconstitutional.

    How did the Marshall Court strengthen the federal government?

    Through key Supreme Court Cases, including Marbury v Madison, McCulloch v Maryland and Gibbons v Ogden, the power of the federal government was asserted over the state.

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