Last weekend, I read The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court, which is a short account of the Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison. This book provides a good refresher about an important event in U.S. history as well as interesting factoids about the debates and personalities at the turn of the 19th Century. However, the subject of this book is not just about our past; the role of the Supreme Court continues to be a matter hotly debated. An intelligent discussion about the role of courts and judges in our democracy cannot take place without some understanding of Marbury v. Madison.
The book begins with the election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the presidency in a Republican landslide that also switched control of both houses of Congress. The inauguration in March 1801 would mark the first voluntary transfer of power from one political party to another in American history. (Jefferson was a Republican and Adams was a federalist). And, the campaign was at least as nasty and personal as our last presidential election. However, the substantive differences on the issues were more stark and (potentially) transformative.
So, the Federalists in the wake of the Republican landslide decided to pack the courts as well as newly created executive positions with Federalists. One such appointment was that of William Marbury, who was appointed to serve as a justice of the peace for the newly created national capital, “Washington City.” Although Mr. Marbury was appointed and confirmed by the Senate, his commission was not delivered before Jefferson assumed the office of President.
Upon taking office, Jefferson refused to issue the commission and denied Mr. Marbury his judicial appointment, a decision which resulted in a challenge before the Supreme Court. This suit presented the prospect of a “constitutional crisis” at a time in history when our democracy and our national identity had probably not yet forged a bond strong enough to withstand such an event. To add to the danger, the 6 justices on the Supreme Court were all federalists, including Chief Justice John Marshall, who had been appointed during the same “lame duck” session in which Mr. Marbury had been appointed. Further complicating matters, Marshall, who had been Secretary of State under John Adams, had had the responsibility for delivering Mr. Marbury’s commission. Finally, John Marshall was Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, and neither man much cared for the other.
At the time the Supreme Court heard the case, the Court was the least powerful and least respected of the three branches of government. Jefferson’s administration refused to even acknowledge the case or the Court’s authority to hear it. At oral arguments in Marbury v. Madison, no lawyer appeared on behalf of Jefferson or his administration. Moreover, after the initial hearing on the case, the new Republican Congress passed a law canceling the Supreme Court’s sessions for the remainder of that year (1802). During the delay of over a year, the political environment became highly charged, with threats being made on both sides of the matter if the case did not go their way. But, the Supreme Court did eventually hear the case and issued a remarkable opinion which changed the course of U.S. history and shaped the role of the judiciary branch in governments around the world.
Essentially, the unanimous Court held that Jefferson had violated the law by not delivering the commission and denying Mr. Marbury his duly appointed position. However, the Court held that the law which authorized the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place was unconstitutional, and accordingly, dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Jefferson and Republicans won the battle of Mr. Marbury’s appointment, but Chief Justice Marshall won the war establishing the Supreme Court as a co-equal branch in our constitutional republic. The power of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution and to declare laws passed by Congress unconstitutional was established once and for all. And, John Marshall demonstrated himself to be among the most important, if not most under appreciated, figures in early U.S. history.
The Great Decision is a short book (190 pages not including appendix and footnotes) and an easy read, enough so to qualify as a “beach read.” For those who want a deeper understanding of the constitution and judicial review, the book is only a introduction, but the book’s bibliography and footnotes make it a perfect beginning. I highly recommend the book, especially for those who want to have an informed opinion on the most recent appointment to our Supreme Court.