John Marshall is sworn in today as the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The man who served in all three branches of the federal government throughout his career shaped American constitutional law and made the Supreme Court a center of power. Most notably, he established that the Court is entitled to exercise judicial review — the power to strike down laws that violate the Constitution. His judicial career is unsurpassed in the history of the United States.
Marshall was born in Virginia in 1755, the oldest of 15 children. He fought in the Revolutionary War and studied law at William & Mary College. After his election to the state legislature in 1782, he moved to Richmond. Within ten years he had become the city’s most respected appellate attorney. He served on the city council and as a magistrate. A moderate Federalist, he was influential in the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. On the national scene he served as Minister to France and was elected to Congress. He then served as Secretary of State for President John Adams.
During the lame duck period of John Adams’ presidency, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Oliver Ellsworth, announced his resignation (in December of 1800). Adams wanted to act quickly to replace him, before the Republicans took office.
He first offered the chief justiceship to the New York governor, John Jay, but in January, Jay declined the nomination. The two other most likely candidates were sitting justices William Cushing and William Paterson. But Adams had other ideas.
James Simon, in his book What Kind of Nation, recounts what happened next:
“Marshall recalled the moment when the president made him aware of his choice. He was meeting with Adams to discuss Jay’s letter declining the appointment as chief justice. ‘Who shall I nominate now?’ the president asked. Marshall replied that he could not advise him (though privately Marshall had earlier speculated that the appointment would go to Cushing). Hesitating a moment, Adams then answered his own question. ‘I believe I must nominate you,’ he told Marshall.”
Marshall went on to become our longest serving Chief Justice, and most influential. He believed in a strong and independent judiciary, and as Simon avers, “Marshall established the Court as the final arbiter of the Constitution and the authoritative voice for the constitutional supremacy of the federal government over the states.” He was a canny politician, and an outstanding man of law.