The Supreme Court’s Inconspicuous Start

Image from Architect of the Capitol

Supreme Court Of The United States Had An Inconspicuous Start

Washington — In a small and undignified chamber on the first floor of the unfinished Capitol of the United States, there assembled in 1801 a body of nine men who probably in the next few years did as much as anyone to mold the still malleable forms of the American Government.

The recent reconvening of the Supreme Court for its 1927-28 term, from October to June here, recalls the inauspicious beginnings of the body in the days of John Marshall. No branch of the Government and no institution under the Constitution, it has been said, has sustained more continuous attack or reached its present position after more vigorous opposition. Today, in black-robed dignity, under the benign smile of Chief Justice William H. Taft, the court sits in assured national respect, in the room in the Capitol which was the Senate Chamber 50 years ago. In 10 or 15 years more the court will sit in its own million-dollar building authorized by the last Congress, to be located on the hill near the Library of Congress.

Quarters Were Inconspicuous

But in 1801, and in the year of the famous Marbury vs. Madison decision, which decided once and for all the court’s power to review, and, if need be, declare unconstitutional acts of Congress, the Supreme Court sat in a chamber only 24 feet wide, 30 feet long, 21 feet high, and rounded at the south end. This was the room casually set aside for it only two weeks before the court came for the first time, in 1800, to the “Federal City,” known now as Washington, D.C.

After 12 years of control by the Federalists, John Adams had been defeated. Jeffersonian Democracy was to have its opportunity. Feeling ran high. Along the unpaved streets of the little capital-town that is now the center of America’s co-ordinated Government, new and old office-holders came almost to blows. Riding into power came the “Anti-Federalists” or Republicans, not to be confused with the present party of that name. Eventually they were to become the Democratic party. Tammany Hall still inscribes its campaign inscription with “Democratic-Republican candidates.”

The Anti-Federalists, with Jefferson, had won the executive and the legislative fields in 1800, but it was the Federal strategy to hold control of the judiciary. A short time before retiring, President Adams almost doubled the number of inferior federal courts and filled them with supporters. Then on Jan. 20, 1801, a little while before leaving office, he sent the name of his Secretary of State to the Senate for confirmation as the _______ Justice. It is recorded that John Marshall, under the stress of the times, nearly failed confirmation at the outset of his 34 years in office.

Image from awesomestoriesMARBURY VS. MADISON

Mingled With the People

John Marshall, the man who upheld the right of judicial review and thereby definitely confirmed that the American Government should ride three-wheeled instead of tandem, with equal powers divided between executive, legislative and judiciary, was regarded as a tower of strength by the Federals. He as a man who felt he could mingle with the people without losing dignity, for he pitched quoits, dressed carelessly, read novels ceaselessly, it is said, and went to market — basket on arm.

He was reared in Fauquier county, Va., served in the Revolution, and was the oldest of a family of 15. From the same state came his arch-opponent in constitutional theory, Thomas Jefferson, the new President. At one end of the unpaved Pennsylvania avenue, in the White House, sat the man who believed in states’ rights; in the stuffy room over the basement, east entrance hall, of the unfinished Capitol sat John Marshall, the very embodiment of the theory of a strong central government.

Decision Delayed Two Years

The incident that made the Supreme Court what it is today came almost at once. Under the act rushed through by the Federalists establishing additional judicial offices a certain William Marbury and three others were named justices of the peace in the District of Columbia. Jefferson coming into office instructed James Madison, as Secretary of State, to refuse to issue their commissions. Marbury and his associates moved by their counsel in December, 1801, in the Supreme Court for a mandamus — a writ requiring a person to do a specified act. A delay of two years ensued. Justice Marshall did not have congested dockets to excuse his delay, but weightier political reasons for withholding judgment.

Then from the small room in the Capitol in 1803 was first enunciated from the Supreme Bench in unmistakable language the doctrine that judicial control over legislation is implied in the provisions of the Federal Constitution. In fact, Chief Justice Marshall was the first man who declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

Image from Free North Carolina

Comment Still Continues

The Marbury vs. Madison decision declared Marbury was entitled to office and that a mandamus was the rightful remedy. However, the application for the latter from the Supreme Court was denied, on the ground that the authority given the Supreme Court by a recent Judiciary Act of Congress was not warranted by the Constitution. Comment has continued on the decision from that day to this.

The right of judicial review is still challenged. Chief Justice Walter Clark of North Carolina, for example, declared the authority of the court is a “doctrine never held before, nor in any country since,” and attacked it as giving sovereignty in the Nation to a majority of the court — “to five lawyers, holding office for life, and not elected by the people.” On the whole, however, the Nation has supported the Marshall view. The whole course of American democratic development since then has been founded upon it.

Today as the nine Supreme Court justices file into their decorous chamber, led by Chief Justice Taft, smiling broadly, and greeted with old-time pomp of prim, deferential bows from clerk and court attaches, they probably have to thank John Marshall not only for their expanded quarters but for the dignity and power which, under him, the great judicial body has obtained.

— Christian Science Monitor.

Sheboygan Press (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) Oct 13, 1927

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