The Case That Made the Court

Article excerpt

The most monumental case ever decided by any court in any country began as a petty dispute over a patronage job. The underlying controversy quickly blossomed into a clash between two titans of the early American republic, and it ended with the unveiling of a new judicial doctrine that would alter the course of American history and spread around the world to protect the liberty of hundreds of millions of people.

The doctrine was judicial review-the practice by which courts strike down acts of other governmental entities-and it led to such epoch-making Supreme Court judgments as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended the legal racial segregation of public schools, and United States v. Nixon (1974), in which the Court ordered President Richard Nixon to turn over certain potentially relevant audiotapes to the Watergate court. It also gave the nation Roe v. Wade (1973). Judicial review is American constitutionalism's greatest gift to the world-an arguably greater gift than the U.S. constitutional model itself. Unlike many other features of the new American government, the practice was virtually without precedent when the Supreme Court announced it in Marbury v. Madison (1803). An English case in 1610 had intimated that an act of Parliament "against common right and reason" was void under the common law, and the English Privy Council was later empowered to invalidate colonial statutes that ran counter to the colo nial charters or English law. But nowhere in the world before 1803 did the courts of any country engage in the practice of striking down laws inconsistent with the national constitution.

William Marbury (1762-1835), a prominent Maryland land speculator who sued the U.S. government to claim a job as a federal justice of the peace, was only a bit player in the high drama to which he gave his name. Two larger figures -Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States, and John Marshall (1755-1835), who was chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835-dominated the stage.

President John F. Kennedy hardly exaggerated when he told a group of Nobel laureates that they constituted the most distinguished group ever to dine in the White House-with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, when he dined there alone. Jefferson owned one of the largest private libraries in North America and was said to read sometimes for 12 hours without a break. Expert in agronomy, archeology, botany, enology, architecture, ornithology, literature, political theory, law, and philosophy, he represented the apotheosis of the American Enlightenment. "I cannot live without books," he said. When he tutored his young aide Meriwether Lewis for the upcoming exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, Jefferson taught him botany, introduced him to the Linnaean system of classification, and showed him how to use a sextant-giving Lewis, as historian Stephen Ambrose observed, "a college undergraduate's introduction to the liberal arts, North American geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethn ology." "You can never be an hour in this man's company without something of the marvelous," President John Adams said, before the two had their falling out.

Today, political activists of all stripes call themselves "Jeffersonians." In Jefferson's day, however, his political philosophy was distinctive. Jefferson was the original advocate of "small is beautiftil." He favored the states over the federal government and preferred a limited federal government and (until he became president) a weak presidency. He believed that an enlightened electorate was the path to good government, and that civic virtue lay more surely in small farms than in big business or citified commerce. Decentralized authority was essential, he thought, to keep government close to the people and responsive to their wishes. Many opponents of the new U.S. Constitution shared Jefferson's views, though Jefferson himself, as American emissary to France during the 1787 Philadelphia convention, avoided formally having to resolve his own ambivalence toward the nation's new charter. …