The Marshall Court (1801–35)


Why is Marshall considered the greatest of the chief justices?

In his 1996 biography of Marshall, author Jean Edward Smith referred to the chief justice as “the Definer of the Nation.” Marshall’s opinions gave the U.S. Supreme Court and the judicial branch the power and respect that they deserved. He did this in many ways. For example, he persuaded his colleagues to drop the practice of in sepiatim opinions, where each justice would speak and issue his opinion. Under Marshall, the Court often spoke in one, unified voice—many times through the chief justice. He also established the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison (1803), which gave the judiciary the power to review the constitutionality of legislation and regulations. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote 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.”

Another factor of Marshall’s greatness is that he was the first chief justice to serve for any length of time. (He served for thirty-four years; the first chief justice, John Jay, had previously served the longest—six years.) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who served from 1902 to 1932, believed part of Marshall’s greatness lay in his “being there” during the formative period of the nation. But Marshall was more than just an accidental force of history; he had great leadership abilities that enabled him to guide the Court during his lengthy term.

U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall. AP Images.

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