The Court System

The Supreme Court Term

Who was the greatest Supreme Court justice?

There perhaps is no clear answer to this question, just as there is no clear answer to the question of who is the greatest president. But, many believe that the greatest Supreme Court justice in history was the nation’s fourth chief justice, John Marshall, who headed the Court from 1801 to 1834. Marshall wrote several seminal opinions that increased the power of the judicial branch, solidified the power of judicial review, and garnered greater respect for the Court. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote of him in her book The Majesty of the Law: “It is no overstatement to claim that Chief Justice Marshall fulfilled the Constitution’s promise of an independent federal judiciary.”

Others say that Earl Warren, who led the Court from 1954 to 1969 was the Court’s greatest chief justice. The Warren Court desegregated the public schools, revolutionized criminal procedure, struck down school-sponsored prayer (receiving much public criticism) and extended various provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Warren wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that is considered one of the great achievements in American history. He wrote: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Construction on the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., was completed in 1935 (iStock).

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