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John Marshal Essay, Research Paper

The Influence of Marshall s Court

The Supreme Court, under John Marshall, had a great influence on the development of the powers of our present day government. John Marshall s court was responsible for greatly increasing the powers of the Supreme Court and the Federal Government.

The Supreme Court of the early 1800 s was nothing like it is today. The early Supreme Court didn t seem like it fit in well with the rest of the Government. But as we know that was destined to change. The man who changed the powers of the Court and of the Federal Government was John Marshall.

John Marshall s life began in Virginia, in 1755. His family lived way out in the country. He was eventually sent to Archibald Campbell s academy. On returning home he read Commentaries on the Laws of England by Blackstone. This book is what probably caused him to become a lawyer. Then his life took a big turn when he was elected a Justice.1 During his time as a Chief Justice he presided over 1,215 cases. His landmark decisions have had a lasting affect on the Court and Government of today.2

During the time when John Marshall was Chief Justice the cases brought before the Supreme Court established how much power the Supreme Court was to have. Just two years after his appointment as Chief Justice, John Marshall was to decide the first of many important cases. This first case was Marbury v. Madison.3

The case of Marbury v. Madison originated when the outgoing Federalist President, John Adams, appointed over 50 men to judicial positions at the very last minute. Then the Senate voted on, and confirmed these appointees, and President Adams signed their confirmations of office. Then John Marshall, who was the outgoing Secretary of State, stamped them with the seal of the United States. But Marshall, because of the rush, overlooked sending the commissions of the justices of peace. Then the new President, Thomas Jefferson, told his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to send out the commissions. One of the men who did not get his commission for justice of the peace was William Marbury.4

William Marbury then sought a writ of Mandamus from the Supreme Court, to get Madison to deliver the commissions he was withholding. Marbury had taken the action directly to the Supreme Court through section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the court the right to hear mandamus cases against federal officials without the case being tried in a lower court.5

Ten days after the case was heard, the Court through Marshall announced its decision. The main part of Marshall s decision was made up of answering three basic questions. The first question asked if Marbury had a right to get his commission as a justice of the peace. The second question was could Marbury get a writ of mandamus to make Madison deliver his commission. And the last question asked was could the Court issue this order.6

The answer to the first question was yes, because the president had signed the commission, and the seal of the United States had been put on it. And Marbury could get a writ of mandamus to make Madison deliver the commission, but this is not what Marshall wanted to do. If he did order Madison to deliver the commission, the Court would have no power to enforce this, but if he decided to dismiss Marbury s action this would be abdicating the essentials of The Judicial Power conferred on the court by the Constitution. 7 Marshall chooses neither while answering the third question. He said that section 13 of the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional because in the Constitution the Supreme Court only had original jurisdiction on cases involving ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls and those in which a state shall be a party. 8 This meant that the Supreme Court could not issue the writ, Marbury would have to get his commission from a trial court, because the Supreme Court should not have been able to hear the case in the first place.9

Marshall limited the Supreme Courts jurisdiction to increase the Courts power.

When Marshall said that an act of Congress was unconstitutional the Supreme Court gained the power of judicial review. Judicial review allows the Justices to decide if the actions of the other branches of the Government are Constitutional. This greatly increased the power of the Supreme Court, because they can prevent Congress from abusing the power to make laws.10

Marshall s next great case was that of McCulloch v. Maryland. This case dealt with the highly disputed Necessary-and-Proper clause. There were two interpretations of this clause at the time. The Jefferson interpretation was the stricter view, while the Hamilton interpretation was broader. This case originally started when a Bank of the United States was set up in Maryland. This federal bank was not very popular because it competed with the state banks for customers and it set limits on state and private loans.11 Maryland, pushed by the state banks, imposed heavy taxes on the Federal Bank. The aim of these taxes was to shut down the Federal Bank. One of the cashiers refused to pay that tax. That cashier was McCulloch. Then the State Treasure brought suit against the cashier in the local court and won. It was then appealed to the Supreme Court.12

Marshall had to decide whether or not the State putting a tax on the bank was constitutional, but to do that he had to decide if Congress had a right to charter the bank. And if Congress did, than the State would not be able to interfere, due to the Supremacy Clause. This is where the Necessary-and-Proper clause comes in. Marshall stated that the Government could pass laws under its implied power, the Necessary-and-Proper Clause, which do not violate specific rules stated in the Constitution. The Bank was a necessary and proper means to carry out the powers given to the Government in the Constitution. Therefore Congress did have a right to charter the Bank. But did Maryland have a right to tax the Bank? The answer Marshall gave was no. This was because of the Supremacy clause.13

In this case Marshall said that an act of a state was unconstitutional. This is the other half of judicial review. Now the Supreme Court can also declare state laws unconstitutional. Not only did this case increase the power of the Supreme Court it also gave more power to Congress. Congress could now use the Necessary-and-Proper clause to better effect.14 Barbara Feinberg believes this to be a landmark decision because it made sure that Congress had the power to make the laws the country needed.15

In a famous case, Gibbons v. Ogden, Marshall enhanced the power of the federal government. This case deals with the Commerce Power given to Congress. This power states that Congress has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among several states 16 The dispute originally began when the New York Legislature gave Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton an exclusive right to operate ferries from New York to New Jersey. Then one man, Thomas Gibbons, began to operate ferries in direct competition with Ogden, who was a licensee of the monopoly. But Gibbons had gotten a license to operate.17

Ogden sued Gibbons in an effort to stop this competition because New York Legislature granted him the right to an exclusive monopoly. Ogden won in the New York Courts, and Gibbons appealed to the Supreme Court.18

The Supreme Courts decision was more than the settling of the case, it involved Marshall giving an idea of what he thought Congress s powers were under the Commerce Clause, which said Congress could regulate commerce . In Marshall s mind commerce, covered everything to do with business dealings. Marshall also took a broad view on the word regulate, saying, It is the power to regulate; that is to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be goverened. 19

What this means is that the ferries were subject to the commerce power of Congress. So the license that Gibbons had gotten was legal, and he had a right to compete with Ogden. This decision is very important. It allows Congress to effectively regulate our commerce, which is important for everyone. 20

Marshall has shaped the way our Supreme Court is run today. Some of the powers that the Court has today were not specifically listed in the Constitution, like judicial review. These powers were earned through Marshall s decisions.

The author believes that Marshall was one of the most influential justices of the Supreme Court. Through some of Marshall s landmark cases he was able to shape the way the Supreme Court is run. In Marbury v. Madison the Supreme Court got review power over Congress. McCulloch v. Maryland gave the Supreme Court the other half of judicial review, which is review power over states. Judicial review is one of the most important things the Court can have. It gives the Court the power to uphold the Constitution. And Gibbons v. Ogden gave the federal government a little more power by allowing a broader use of the Necessary-and-Proper clause.

Through his decisions he gave power to the Supreme Court and Federal Government. The power he gave was, and still is, used to protect the Constitution.


1. Barbara Feinberg, John Marshall The Great Chief Justice (Springfield: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995), p. 15-16.

2. Feinberg p. 92.

3. Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: How it was How it is (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987), p. 115.

4. Schwartz, Bernard. A history of the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993), p. 40.

5. Schwartz p. 40.

6. Feinberg p. 73.

7. Schwartz p. 40.

8. Feinberg p. 76.

9. Feinberg p. 76.

10. Rehnquist p. 110-111.

11. Surrency, Erwin C. The Marshall Reader (New York City: Oceana Publications, 1955) p. 76.

12. Feinberg p. 70.

13. Rehnquist p. 117-118.

14. Feinberg p. 83.

15. Feinberg p. 84-85.

16. Rehnquist p. 116.

17. Schwartz p. 47-48.

18. Rehnquist p. 116.

19. Schwartz p. 48.

20. Schwartz p. 48.

Feinberg, Barbara S. John Marshall: The Great Chief Justice. Springfield: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995

Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: How it was How it is. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987

Schwartz, Bernard. A history of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1993

Surrency, Erwin C. The Marshall Reader. New York City: Oceana Publications, 1955

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