Saturday, May 2, 2009

Supreme Court 2: John Marshall

I wrote here about America's first two-party system, between the Federalists and the party that were variously called Republicans, Democratic-Republicans or Jeffersonians. After Thomas Jefferson's victory over Federalist John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson's party dominated American politics until the emergence of the Whig Party by the 1830s.

The Federalists were a spent force in federal politics after 1800, but one of their leaders continued to wield power in Washington until his death in 1835.

John Marshall, a Virginia lawyer, had long been active in that state's politics, including his service as a delegate to the Virginia convention that ratified the federal constitution of 1787. He was a supporter of ratification.

When the first parties emerged, Marshall aligned himself with the Federalists. He briefly served in the House of Representatives and as secretary of state, during the presidency of the Federalist John Adams. Adams, as a lame duck president in early 1801, appointed Marshall as chief justice of the United States. The Senate, in the waning days of the last session in which the Federalists had a majority, confirmed the appointment.

The Constitution provides that federal judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour". In practice, that means that there is no set time limit on their tenure; they continue to serve until death, resignation, or removal through the impeachment process.

For example, one of the current associate justices, John Paul Stevens, continues on the court, 32 years after the president who appointed him, Gerald Ford, left the presidency. Stevens replaced William Douglas, who had stayed on the court another 30 years after Franklin Roosevelt, the president who appointed Douglas, died in office. In a personnel sense, presidents' judicial appointments tend to be their most enduring legacy.

Such was the case with Adams and Marshall.

During Marshall's 34 years as chief justice, a significant body of federal case law began to develop in the recently-formed federal judiciary. That gave him the chance to set his imprint on American law in a way that perhaps no other American jurist has been able to do.

Next: Some significant cases of the Marshall Court.

Image: Library of Congress

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