Great leaders never lose sight of their objectives while fighting to achieve them. Because of their clear vision, they can change companies, governments, and even the world. One leader who transformed our country was Chief Justice John Marshall, who presided at the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835.
When Marshall became chief justice the federal judiciary was not respected. No one, least of all the president and Congress, considered the federal judiciary to be a co-equal branch of government despite the clear language in the Constitution. Marshall set the goal of transforming the role of the Supreme Court.
His first opportunity came in 1803 when he authored the famous decision Marbury v. Madison which established the principle of judicial review. Judicial review gives the U.S. Supreme Court authority to decide if federal laws comply with or violate the Constitution. This principle is the foundation for our three co-equal branches of government.
The facts of the case are hardly edifying. John Adams lost the election of 1801 and used his final months in office to stuff the courts and government offices with appointees from his political party. One of the political appointees, William Marbury, sued after being denied his appointment because the paperwork wasn’t timely signed and delivered to him.
John Marshall was Secretary of State for John Adams before being appointed to the Supreme Court by the lame duck Congress controlled by Adams’ political party. So as chief justice, Marshall was presiding over a case that involved actions of the former presidential administration of which he had been a key member. Conflict of interest doesn’t seem to have concerned anyone.
Despite these unedifying facts, John Marshall exceeded expectations by creating the legal principle that ensured our government would be balanced and that the rule of law would control government actions. (It’s the difference between building strong institutions and degenerating into populism and anarchy.) He rose to the occasion because he never lost sight of his objective.
Marshall believed in a strong federal government of three co-equal branches (Congress, President, and Supreme Court) as set out in the Constitution. He never wavered from that objective. The strength of his vision and commitment to his objective transformed the U.S.
For more information about this fascinating case, look at The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and The Battle for the Supreme Court, by Cliff Sloan and David McKean (2009).
About the Author
Norma Shirk helps employers create human resources policies that are appropriate for the employer’s size and budget. The goal is to have structure without bureaucracy. Learn more here about Corporate Compliance Risk Advisor.
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