The nation’s highest court dominates our politics. But it didn’t start out so powerful. Here’s everything you need to know:
How did the Founders view the court?
While the Constitutional Convention of 1787 agonized over the specific powers delegated to the legislative and executive branches, the Framers devoted relatively little energy to the judiciary, leaving its powers mostly vague and undefined. Alexander Hamilton argued that the judiciary would be the “least dangerous” branch, with the justices dependent on Congress for their salaries and budget. Without the “purse” or the “sword,” Hamilton maintained, the court’s rulings would depend “neither on force nor will, but merely judgment,” with the court’s power resting in its prestige. During the first years of its existence, the Supreme Court heard only four cases. When John Jay, the first chief justice, resigned in 1795 to become governor of New York, newspapers framed the move as a promotion. The court, Jay complained, lacked “energy, weight, and dignity.”
When did that change?
With John Marshall, the nation’s fourth chief justice. Appointed in 1801, the 45-year-old Virginian almost immediately began carving out a more prominent role for the Supreme Court. In the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall asserted the court’s power to strike down laws passed by Congress as unconstitutional. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” Marshall wrote, establishing judicial review as a keystone of American constitutional law. The Marshall court also shaped much of the federal system that we know today, repeatedly ruling that federal laws are superior to state laws. This enraged small government–minded politicians, such as then–President Thomas Jefferson, who accused the Marshall court of judicial overreach. “The constitution,” Jefferson wrote, “is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”
Who succeeded Marshall?
After 34 years as chief justice, Marshall gave way to Roger B. Taney, who came from a family of slaveholding Maryland tobacco planters. In one of the most infamous decisions in Supreme Court history, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved man from Missouri who sued for his freedom. Blacks, Taney wrote, could not be citizens and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The court further ruled that the federal government could not restrict slavery in the territories, striking down the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
What was the impact of Dred Scott?
It was a disaster. Taney had hoped to end the bitter national debate over slavery by making it settled law. Instead, the court’s decision further polarized the country, emboldening Southern slaveholders while hardening opposition to slavery — and tarnishing the court’s reputation — in the North. When Taney ruled against President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus for suspected Confederate partisans during the Civil War, Lincoln ignored the order. Taney feared that the White House might even try to arrest him as well, with Northern newspapers accusing …read more
Source:: The Week – Politics