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Supreme Court – Marbury vs. Madison (1803)

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On the final of his presidency, John Adams named forty-two justices of the peace and sixteen new circuit court justices for the District of Columbia with the “Midnight Appointments”. “The Midnight Appointments” were an attempt by the Federalists to take control of the federal judiciary prior to Thomas Jefferson taking office. The commissions were signed by President Adams and sealed by acting Secretary of State John Marshall (who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and author of this opinion), but they were not delivered before the termination of Adams’s presidency. Thomas Jefferson refused to honor the commissions, claiming that they were invalid because they had not been delivered by the end of Adams’s term. In the case of Marbury v Madison, the actual suit was William Marbury applying to the Supreme Court of the United States to compel James Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, to deliver the commissions. The constitutional issue present in the case was whether or not the Supreme Court had the authority to review acts of Congress and determine whether or not they are unconstitutional, making them void.

The other Constitutional issue in the case was whether or not Congress can expand the scope the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which is defined in Article III of the Constitution. The court’s Ruling was actually somewhat mixed. The court ruled that Marbury did have right to the commissions because the order would go into effect when Adams signed the papers. This was so because he was still in power when he signed them. The also ruled that Congress did not have the power to expand the original jurisdiction of Supreme Court beyond that which is specified in Article III of the Constitution. Their reasoning behind this was that the Constitution states “the Supreme Court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party. In all other cases, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction.” They ruled that if the intention of was to leave it up to the discretion of the legislature to delegate the judicial powers between the Supreme and inferior courts in accordance with the will of said body, then the section was mere surplusage and devoid of meaning.

If Congress remains at liberty to give this court appellate jurisdiction where the Constitution has declared their jurisdiction shall be original, and original jurisdiction where the Constitution has declared it shall be appellate, then the distribution of jurisdiction made in the Constitution, is form without substance. They also ruled that the Supreme Court did not have original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus. They ruled that in order to enable this court to issue a mandamus, it must be shown to be an exercise of appellate jurisdiction, or to be necessary to enable them to exercise appellate jurisdiction.

The decision made by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803 was of considerable significance, not only in Marbury v. Madison, but for the future of the Supreme Court as well. Marshall gave future judges a federal judiciary that could stand equally beside the other two branches of government. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Marshall was a Federalist partisan who had a great interest in determining the outcome of the case. Despite the fact that Marshall may have not fully realized the potential of his decision, it must have occurred to him that the decision set forth a great precedent for the Supreme Court and forever strengthened the power of the judiciary. By the time he died in 1835, the federal judiciary had become a dynamic force in American government, due largely to John Marshall’s efforts and achievements. One could make an argument for this being one the most significant cases in American Law.

Fletcher vs. Peck (1810):
In 1795, close to the entire Georgia state legislature was bribed to permit the sale of 30 million acres of land at less than two cents per acre totaling $500,000. Only a single member of the legislature voted against the legislation. The land was known as the Yazoo lands and eventually became the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Public outrage ensued and as a result of this, most of the legislators lost the following election and the new legislature passed a statute in 1796. The statute essentially nullified the transactions. People who had purchased the land refused to accept the return of their purchase price and much of the land was resold to bona fide purchasers at great profit, one of those who sold the land was John Peck. Robert Fletcher purchased 15,000 acres from Peck in 1803 for $3,000. Peck, in spite of the 1796 statute, had placed a covenant in the deed which stated that the title to the land had not been constitutionally impaired by any subsequent act of the state of Georgia. Fletcher sued Peck to establish the constitutionality of the 1796 act; either the act was constitutional and the contract was void, or the act was unconstitutional and Fletcher had clear title to the land.

There was only one Constitutional issue addressed in this case. That issue was the question if a law negates all property rights established under an earlier law, was it unconstitutional? The Court ruled that a law that negates all property rights established under an earlier law is in fact unconstitutional because it would be violating the Contract Clause (Article I, Section 10) of the United States Constitution. Ergo, it would be unconstitutional. This was a landmark decision for the Supreme Court. The case was so significant because it was the first time that the Supreme Court had ruled a state law to be unconstitutional. This decision also aided the creation of a growing precedent for the sanctity of legal contracts. This, of course, hints that Native Americans did not have the title to their lands.

McCulloch vs. Maryland (1819):
In the case of McCulloch vs. Maryland, Maryland had enacted a statute that would impose on all banks that were operating in Maryland without a charter from the state. The statute provided that all such banks would be barred from issuing any bank notes except on paper officially stamped and issued by the state. The statute also set up fees for the paper and penalties for violations. The Second Bank of the United States was established pursuant to an 1816 act of Congress. McCulloch, a cashier at the Baltimore outlet of the Bank of the United States, had issued bank notes disobeying the Maryland law. Maryland proceeded to sue McCulloch for failing to pay the taxes that were due under the Maryland statute. McCulloch fought back. He argued that the act was unconstitutional. He appealed to the Supreme Court after a state court found for Maryland. The Constitutional issues addressed in this case were two in number.

The first being, whether or not Congress had the power, under the Constitution, to incorporate a bank, despite that fact that power is not specifically enumerated within the Constitution. The second being, whether or not the State of Maryland had the power to tax an institution created by Congress pursuant to its powers under the Constitution. The court ruled that Congress had power under the Constitution to incorporate a bank pursuant to the Necessary and Proper clause in Article I, section 8. They also ruled that the state of Maryland did not possess the power to tax an institution created by Congress pursuant to its powers under the Constitution. Their ruling behind it all was that the Government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action, and its laws, when made in pursuance of the Constitution, form the supreme law of the land. There is nothing in the Constitution which excludes incidental or implied powers. If the end be legitimate, and within the scope of the Constitution, all the means which are appropriate and plainly adapted to that end, and which are not prohibited, may be employed to carry it into effect pursuant to the Necessary and Proper clause.

The power of establishing a corporation is not a distinct sovereign power or end of Government, but only the means of carrying into effect other powers which are sovereign. It may be exercised whenever it becomes an appropriate means of exercising any of the powers granted to the federal government under the U.S. Constitution. If a certain means to carry into effect of any of the powers expressly given by the Constitution to the Government of the Union be an appropriate measure, not prohibited by the Constitution, the degree of its necessity is a question of legislative discretion, not of judicial cognizance. The Bank of the United States has a right to establish its branches within any state. The States have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to impede or in any manner control any of the constitutional means employed by the U.S. government to execute its powers under the Constitution. This principle does not extend to property taxes on the property of the Bank of the United States, or to taxes on the proprietary interest which the citizens of that State may hold in this institution, in common with other property of the same description throughout the State.

The ruling established the principle of implied powers through a broad interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, giving Congress an expanded role in governing the nation. The decision also reinforced the supremacy of federal law over state law when the two conflict. The landmark ruling became the basis for key Court decisions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries supporting congressional activities. Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress power to make laws. Section 1 provides “all Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.” Furthermore, Section 8 of Article I enumerates (specifically names or lists) the specific areas where Congress may exercise its law making powers. These include the power to declare war, raise and support armies, provide a navy, regulate commerce, borrow and make money, collect taxes, pay debts, regulate immigration and naturalization, pass bankruptcy laws, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.

Clause 18 of Section 8 also declares that “Congress shall have Power . . . to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing (carrying out) its powers. Almost immediately after the birth of the new nation, a question inevitably arose concerning the list of enumerated powers. The answer came in 1819 in McCulloch v. Maryland. McCulloch provided the U.S. Supreme Court its opportunity to define how broad Congress’ power should be and, additionally, to what extent states could regulate activities which fell within the powers of the national government. In McCulloch the Court specifically was asked to consider if Congress had the constitutional power to charter a national bank, and, if so, could a state constitutionally impose a tax on that bank. Gibbons vs. Ogden (1824):

This case is set into action when New York granted Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton the exclusive right to steam boat navigation on New York state waters. Livingston assigned Ogden the right to navigate the waters between New York City and certain ports in New Jersey. Ogden brought this lawsuit seeking an injunction to restrain Gibbons from operating steam ships on New York waters in violation of his exclusive privilege. Ogden was granted the injunction and Gibbons appealed, claiming that his steamships were licensed under the Act of Congress entitled “An act for enrolling and licensing ships and vessels to be employed in the coasting trade and fisheries, and for regulating the same.” The Chancellor ruled on the injunction, holding that the New York law granting the exclusive privilege was not repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and that the grants were valid. Gibbons appealed and the decision was affirmed by the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors, the highest Court of law and equity in the state of New York. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Constitutional issues that this case addressed came to a grand total of three. The first being a question of whether or not state could establish legislation that would set regulations for a purely internal affair regarding trade or if police power that was pursuant to a power could regulate interstate commerce concurrent with that of Congress. The second being a question of whether or not states possess the power to moderate the stages of interstate commerce, and because of the necessity for a national uniformity, commands that their rules be prescribed by a solitary ruling force. The third being, the question: Is a state that grants exclusive use of state waterways inconsistent with federal law? Their answers and rulings to said issues were: that a state may not issue legislations that were inconsistent with federal law. That the States did not, in fact, have the power to moderate the stages of interstate commerce, and finally that the states did not possess the authority to grant exclusive rights to state waterways. To validate their findings, the Supreme Court referred to the Constitution. After applying a loose construction they came to the conclusion that the acts of Congress under the Constitution regulating the coasting trade were supreme and that state laws must yield to that supremacy.

The landmark ruling was the first to interpret federal powers under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. It provided a broad interpretation of what is commerce under the clause, holding that commerce was more than simply the buying and selling of goods and forming the basis for numerous rulings involving the Commerce Clause.

Johnson vs. McIntosh (1823):
Another John Marshall case what a surprise. In 1775, Thomas Johnson and other British citizens purchased land in the Northwest Territory, then in the colony of Virginia, from members of the Piankeshaw Indian tribes. This purchase was arranged under a 1763 proclamation by the King of England. Thomas Johnson left this land to his heirs. In 1818, William McIntosh purchased from Congress, 11,000 acres of the land originally purchased by Johnson. Upon realizing the competing claims on the land, Johnson’s heirs sued McIntosh in the United States District Court for the District of Illinois to recover the land. The District Court ruled for McIntosh, reasoning that McIntosh’s title was valid since it was granted by Congress. Johnson’s heirs appealed to the Supreme Court.

There was only one issue addressed in the case and that was the question: Was McIntosh’s claim to the disputed land superior to Johnson’s claim because McIntosh’s claim was the result of Congressional action? The court came to the conclusion; holding McIntosh’s claim superior to Johnson’s in a unanimous decision. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court established that the federal government had “the sole right” of negotiation with the Native American nations. Through the Revolutionary War and the treaties that followed, the United States earned the “exclusive right…to extinguish [the Indians’] title, and to grant the soil.” The Indians themselves did not have the right to sell property to individuals. McIntosh’s claim, which was derived from Congress, was superior to Johnson’s claim, which was derived from the non- existent right of Indians to sell their land.

The significance of this case was far-reaching. For the first time there were now explicit limitations on Indian sovereignty in the law of the land. Yet while limiting tribal sovereignty, Marshall took pains to protect it. As he admitted, “Conquest gives a title which the court of the conqueror cannot deny,” but Marshall also stressed that the “conquered shall not be wantonly oppressed.” If the Indian peoples coexisted with their conquerors in peace, he wrote, and then the Indians and their rights to occupy the land should be protected. From the language of the opinion, Marshall demonstrated his ambivalence about the United States’ conquest of native peoples and wanted to offer American Indians protection through the courts. Indeed, Marshall’s later opinion in Worcester v. Georgia, holding that Indian sovereignty was not subject to state laws, reinforced these protections.

Worcester vs. Georgia (1832):
Marshall sure presided for a lot of important cases. In September 1831, Samuel A. Worcester and others, all non-Native Americans, were indicted in the Supreme Court for the county of Gwinnett in the state of Georgia for “residing within the limits of the Cherokee nation without a license” and “without having taken the oath to support and defend the constitution and laws of the state of Georgia.” They were indicted under an 1830 act of the Georgia legislature entitled “an act to prevent the exercise of assumed and arbitrary power by all persons, under pretext of authority from the Cherokee Indians.” Among other things, Worcester argued that the state could not maintain the prosecution because the statute violated the Constitution, treaties between the United States and the Cherokee nation, and an act of Congress entitled “an act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes.” Worcester was convicted and sentenced to “hard labour in the penitentiary for four years.” The U.S. Supreme Court received the case on a writ of error.

Back to Constitutional issues. … Those addressed in this case were technically only one: Did the state of Georgia have the authority to regulate the intercourse between citizens of its state and members of the Cherokee Nation? They ruled against the appeal. In an opinion delivered by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court held that the Georgia act, under which Worcester was prosecuted, violated the Constitution, treaties, and laws of the United States. Noting that the “treaties and laws of the United States contemplate the Indian territory as completely separated from that of the states; and provide that all intercourse with them shall be carried on exclusively by the government of the union,” Chief Justice Marshall argued, “The Cherokee nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory in which the laws of Georgia can have no force. The whole intercourse between the United States and this nation is, by our constitution and laws, vested in the government of the United States.” The Georgia act thus interfered with the federal government’s authority and was unconstitutional. Justice Henry Baldwin dissented for procedural reasons and on the merits.

This ruling was the third key decision by Chief Justice John Marshall since 1823 establishing the political standing of Indian tribes within the United States. The ruling recognized the sovereign (politically independent) status of tribes. States did not have jurisdiction to pass laws regulating activities on Indian lands located within their state boundaries. This reaffirmation of tribal sovereignty became the basis for many Court decisions over the next 160 years and eventually helped lead to dramatic Indian economic recovery by the late twentieth century.

Despite winning in Court, the Cherokee were still forced from their homeland by the federal government and resettled in Oklahoma. After the United States gained independence from Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, landownership issues became an even greater concern. Indian nations, still many and strong, held military supremacy over the new fledgling and economically broke United States. The young nation did inherit from Great Britain several international principles guiding Indian relations. First, tribes have sovereignty, meaning they are politically independent of other nations and free to govern their own internal affairs by their own laws and customs. Secondly, tribes held a pre-existing right to the land they occupied which they could give to others. Third, land could only be exchanged between national governments. Neither private citizens nor state governments could acquire land from tribes.

Dred Scott vs. Sanford (1857):
By the mid-1850s, sectional conflict over the extension of slavery into the Western territories threatened to tear the nation apart. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 destroyed the tenuous balance struck 34 years before between “free States” and “slave States” in the Missouri Compromise. Under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” pro- and antislavery factions waged violent conflict for control of what came to be known as “bleeding Kansas” before that territory was admitted to the Union. With Congress sharply divided, reflecting the divisions in the nation, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of hearing the case of a fugitive slave suing for his freedom. Intended to be the definitive ruling that would settle the controversy threatening the Union for good, the case instead produced a divisive decision that pushed the nation one step closer toward the precipice of civil war.

John Marshall, in his time the single most influential advocate for strong National Government, had died in 1835. President Andrew Jackson appointed Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawney). During his tenure as Chief Justice, Taney upheld strong national power, but with some modifications. Taney endorsed what is known as “dual sovereignty,” which implies that State and federal governments are “foreign” to each other; each is sovereign in its own right. By 1857, Taney presided over a Court that had expanded to nine justices and was divided—four Northerners and five Southerners, including Taney, sat on the bench.

Constitutional issues included and are limited to: Did a slave become free upon entering a Free State? Could a slave—or a black person—actually be entitled to sue in federal courts? Was the transportation of slaves subject to federal regulation? Could the Federal Government deny a citizen the right to property (interstate transportation of slaves/property) without due process of law? Could an item of property (a slave) be taken from the owner without just compensation? And finally, was the Missouri Compromise a valid and constitutional action of the National Government? Could Congress prohibit slavery in a territory or delegate that power to a territory’s legislature? The Court decided 7-2 in favor of the slave owner. Every justice submitted an individual opinion justifying his position, with Chief Justice Taney’s being the most influential. According to Taney, African Americans, be they slave or free, were not citizens. As a slave, moreover, Scott was property and had no right to bring suit in federal courts.

“In regard to the issue of Scott’s becoming free when he moved to the Free State of Illinois,” Taney wrote, “the laws of the State in which the petitioner was currently resident, namely the slave State of Missouri, should apply.” Of far more serious consequence, the Court also struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional, because it deprived property owners (slave owners) of the right to take their property anywhere in the United States, thus “depriving them of life, liberty and property under the 5th Amendment.” Any line, or law, that limited the right of slave owners to utilize their property was unconstitutional. Taney then ruled that the Congress could not extend to any territorial governments powers that it did not possess (in this case, the power to limit slavery). By declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, Taney not only destroyed one of the delicate compromises that had kept the union together for nearly four decades but also rejected the principle of popular sovereignty.

Popular sovereignty, which held that territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery for them, had been strongly advocated by Stephen Douglas as the solution to the controversies in the federal territories that dominated the 1850s. This disallowance of popular sovereignty contributed to the national disorder over the spread of slavery. The Dred Scott decision unleashed a storm of protest against the Court and the administration of President Buchanan, which supported the decision. The justices’ plans to make a definitive ruling that would settle the controversy over slavery backfired as Republicans charged that a “Slave Power” conspiracy extended into the highest reaches of government. Violent struggles continued in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, where “free soil” and proslavery guerilla bands terrorized each other. A major landmark on the road to the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision was overturned with the adoption of the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution in 1865 and 1868. These amendments ended slavery and established firmly the citizenship of all persons, regardless of race, creed, or previous condition of servitude.

As for Dred Scott, two months after the Supreme Court’s decision, Emerson’s widow sold Scott and his family to the Blow family, who freed them in May of 1857. Instead of settling the slavery issue, the decision fueled the controversy further. The ruling most likely hastened the start of the Civil War. A slave is a person who works for another person against his or her will as a result of force. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who attempted to gain his freedom through the courts. His case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and on March 6, 1857 the Court handed down a decision. The ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford has been described as the Court’s greatest mistake, a tragic error, a political calamity. Not only did the opinion cast a dark shadow over the Court’s trustworthiness and prestige, but it most likely hastened the beginning of the Civil War. Born in Virginia in the late 1790s, Scott was owned by Peter Blow. A plantation owner, Blow took Scott to Alabama in 1819 then, after growing tired of farming, moved his family and slaves including Scott to the booming frontier town of St. Louis, Missouri in 1830. Scott was sold in 1833 to an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson of St. Louis.

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