How Chief Justice Marshall secured Supreme Court’s place in U.S. constitutional order

Written by William C. Duncan

October 29, 2021

After a bruising campaign, President John Adams was denied re-election in 1800. In the next months, though, Adams stayed busy. A priority for the president was filling vacancies in federal offices, including judgeships. John Marshall was nominated as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801, about a month before Thomas Jefferson took office as U.S. president.

Marshall was the fourth chief justice in a period of 11 years (for perspective, only 13 chief justices have served since Marshall). The first chief justice, John Jay, only presided over four decisions in his five years of service, and none in the court’s first three years. For the last two years of his term, Jay was in England negotiating a treaty. This sounds inconceivable to us today, but with so few cases at the time, President George Washington knew Jay had enough time to serve in the post, and the political and government norms of today had not yet been established.

The Supreme Court did not really have its own space until 1810. From 1801 to 1810, the court met in a conference room at the Capitol, after which it was given a dedicated room in the Capitol that was used for the next five decades. (The court would not have a standalone building until 1935.)

When Marshall took office, the judiciary was a source of serious political controversy. Adams’ effort to fill judicial appointments before leaving office led Jefferson and his supporters to fear a conspiracy to limit their political influence by filling the courts with Federalist partisans.

Sending a shot across the bow of the court, the newly ascendant Jeffersonian Republicans moved to impeach Justice Samuel Chase. Chase had made himself obnoxious to his opponents because of his “volcanic personality” and “bitter partisan rhetoric.”

At Jefferson’s instigation, Congress initiated impeachment proceedings, and Chase was impeached March 12, 1804. The specific accusations were “refusing to dismiss biased jurors and of excluding or limiting defense witnesses in two politically sensitive cases.” (This was while he was riding circuit, not in Supreme Court proceedings.)

The Senate, however, acquitted Chase. Despite a 25-9 majority of Jeffersonian Republicans in the Senate,

With at least six Jeffersonian Republicans joining the nine Federalists who voted not guilty on each article, the Senate on March 1, 1805, acquitted Samuel Chase on all counts. A majority voted guilty on three of the eight articles, but on each article the vote fell far short of the two-thirds required for conviction. The Senate thereby effectively insulated the judiciary from further congressional attacks based on disapproval of judges’ opinions. Chase resumed his duties at the bench, where he remained until his death in 1811.

While the acquittal likely ended direct attacks on the court, Marshall had a difficult task ahead: to establish the court in its constitutional role and to elevate its dignity.

Marshall was a remarkable man. A distant cousin of Jefferson, he was also from Virginia. He was one of 15 children in his family. He left Virginia to serve with distinction in the Continental Army under Gen. Washington and became especially close to Lt. Gen. Baron von Steuben.

After the war, Marshall finished studying law at the College of William and Mary and practiced in Richmond, where he also served in the state legislature.

During a period of high tension with France, Adams appointed Marshall to serve as a peace delegate to France. Though the mission did not result in better relations with the French, it did win Marshall some popularity for his refusal to offer bribes to French officials.

In 1800, Adams appointed Marshall as secretary of state, where he was serving at the time of his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Marshall served for 34 years as chief justice and is widely recognized as the formative figure in the court’s early history. Primarily known for his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, in which the court established the principle that an act by Congress that is at odds with the Constitution is void and that the courts acted as the arbiter of such decisions, Marshall is also known for securing the place of the court in the nation’s constitutional order.

Importantly, the statute invalidated in Marbury was the only federal statute the court struck down during Marshall’s tenure. While he asserted the court’s constitutional authority, he did not seek confrontations and managed to develop excellent working relationships with the other justices, regardless of their party affiliation or the president who had nominated them.

Thus, the overwhelming majority of the opinions issued by the court during this time were unanimous –  an important reason Marshall succeeded in securing respect for the court among the other branches. Marshall’s personal friendliness and willingness to learn from others were critical in making this remarkable accomplishment possible.

Near the end of his judicial tenure, Marshall was able to draw on the respect that the court had achieved to issue an important case rebuking a state’s disregard (supported by the Andrew Jackson administration) of treaties with Native American tribes to grab their land.

As a classroom resource from the University of Alaska explains, Worcester v. Georgia (1832)

involved a missionary, Samuel Worcester who was preaching on the Cherokee lands, which was prohibited by the laws of Georgia without a state license to do so. Worcester was imprisoned and filed suit against the State of Georgia claiming that the State did not have authority to control activity on Cherokee lands. The Court sided with Worcester finding that the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign nation, a distinct community, occupying its own territory, and within which the laws of Georgia could have no force. This decision again established that the federal government, not the states have authority over Indian affairs and that the tribes retained inherent sovereignty, the authority to make and enforce their own laws within their lands.

Ultimately, the Jackson administration was not constrained by the court’s decision. But the court’s decision made clear the injustice of the government’s actions and was one of the first in a series of cases in which the Supreme Court acted to protect minority rights against an unsympathetic majority.

That function, at the heart of the court’s constitutional role, could not have been served but for Marshall’s remarkable contribution to the federal judiciary.

*Much of the information on Chief Justice Marshall in this post comes from Joel Richard Paul, Without Precedent: Chief Justice John Marshall and His Times (2018)

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