Commentary: Court News: Why the Chief Justice Debates Really Matter

Article excerpt

As the discussion continues regarding the president's appointment of John Roberts as the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the importance of the office is illustrated by recalling one of the most important decisions penned by a chief justice.

The year was 1803 and the Supreme Court's opinion in Marbury vs. Madison was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.

The case was one involving political adversaries testing the still-forming boundaries of the young nation. What emerged from the case was an enduring outline of the powers and duties of the judicial branch of government in the United States.

William Marbury, a member of the Federalist party, was appointed as a justice of the peace by outgoing Federalist President John Adams in the closing days of his presidency. In 1801, new President Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, took office.

After the nomination and appointment of an individual to office by the president, the final act necessary to enter into office was the delivery of the commission by the secretary of state, Marshall explained. However, Secretary of State James Madison failed to deliver Marbury's commission to him. He sued in the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus.

Although Marshall found that Marbury was properly nominated and appointed and that the secretary of state should have delivered Marbury's commission to him, he ultimately lost his case. …