Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

There Were Great Men before Agamemnon

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

There Were Great Men before Agamemnon

Article excerpt

vixere fortes ante Agamemnona multi; sed omnes illacrimabiles urgentur ignotique longa node, carent quia vate sacro.



John Marshall is the Agamemnon2 of Supreme Court history. He is universally considered the Court's greatest Justice, and rightly so. But there were great Justices before Marshall.3 One of those great Justices was James Iredell. No Justice in the Court's history has provided a more detailed or sophisticated explanation and justification of the doctrine of judicial review. Iredell needs a bard, and this Essay is my ode to his memory.

James Iredell was born and raised an Englishman.4 His father was a merchant in Bristol who had fallen on hard times, but young Iredell had influential relatives who secured an appointment for him as a customs officer in North Carolina. In 1768, he arrived in Edenton, North Carolina, as a lonely seventeen-year-old.5 His salary was paid to his parents while he subsisted on the nontax fees that he collected for incidental services. Fortunately, Iredell was befriended by Samuel Johnston,6 under whom he studied law. When the Revolution came fewer than ten years later, Iredell had to choose between his mother country and the rebelling colonies. On the eve of the Revolution, his wealthy bachelor uncle in Jamaica warned him to "keep yourself perfectly neut[ral] in those disputes" and implied that Iredell would be disinherited if he failed to follow this avuncular advice.7 Iredell, however, decided to forsake his prospective inheritance and to side with his new friends in North Carolina.8 As the Revolution progressed, he held a number of law-related offices. He served his state as a judge of the superior court and then as attorney general. Near the war's end, he entered private practice.9

By the time the Constitution was framed in 1787, Iredell was a proto-Federalist who believed in the need for a strong national government to deal with national issues. During the ratification process, he wrote a series of newspaper essays in support of the Constitution and was the proposed Constitution's leading advocate at the North Carolina ratification convention.10 His public advocacy earned him a national reputation, and in 1789, President Washington rewarded him with an appointment to the Supreme Court.

The mature Justice Iredell was a consummate professional who crafted his judicial opinions to state clearly his chain of thought.11 In one case, he explained, "I . . . endeavour to state my own principles . . . with so much clearness that whether my opinion be right or wrong, it may at least be understood what the opinion really is."12 His work epitomized comprehensive analysis and exhaustive attention to detail. Of course, most of us have personally known and deeply respected attorneys and judges who have lived their professional lives by these rigorous standards. Iredell's intense professionalism made him an admirable attorney and a very good judge, but he was more than just admirably competent. He is entitled to the mantle of greatness because no Justice in the nation's history ever has equaled his full, detailed, and sophisticated explanation and justification of the doctrine of judicial review. On this immensely important issue, he is greater than John Marshall, our Agamemnon.13

If James Iredell's explanation of judicial review is superior to John Marshall's, why has he languished in virtual obscurity? Why has he lain virtually unknown for a long night of two centuries? Some years ago, a survey of law school deans and professors of law, history, and political science ranked the abilities of all the Justices who had served on the Court. In this survey, Iredell was considered just "average."14 People regard him as mediocre for many reasons. In part, perceived greatness is a simple function of nearness in time, and no one who knew him has been alive for 150 years.15 Iredell died over two centuries ago. …

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