Supreme Court Cases: Early Republic


Before his term as President ended, a defeated President John Adams appointed William Marbury as a Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia. Adams’ Secretary of State John Marshall failed to deliver Marbury his appointment papers before the new President Thomas Jefferson and the new Secretary of State James Madison assumed office. The new President and the new Secretary of State declined to give Marbury the position. After hiring an attorney and using part of a 1789 law passed by Congress, Marbury filed suit directly with the Supreme Court asking that Court to direct President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison to give Marbury the position. The Supreme Court did not rule for or against Marbury. In other words, the Court did not order Secretary of State Madison and President Jefferson to give Marbury the position. What the Court did was something far more important. For the first time, in Marbury v Madison, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional an act of Congress (a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 under which Marbury had brought his case directly to the Supreme Court). This was an exercise of the power of judicial review—the power of the Supreme Court to interpret laws of Congress and declare them unconstitutional if in the judgment of the Court they are in conflict with the Constitution. Speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall thus established the Court as an equal partner in government with the executive and legislative branches, something it had not been prior to Marshall becoming Chief Justice. The Supreme Court became the final authority on what the Constitution means. Marshall wrote: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marshall continued, “[T]he Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle… that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void.” The Supreme Court, further, was the proper authority to decide if a law is in conflict with the Constitution. He called this responsibility “the very essence of judicial duty.”
After a dispute over the governance of Dartmouth College, the New Hampshire legislature enacted legislation that essentially converted Dartmouth from a private college to a state operated college. The state argued that Dartmouth’s charter had been granted by the British king and that, as heirs to British sovereignty, like the king before it, the state now had the right to cancel contracts. The Supreme Court reasoned that while that may have been true in the past, the adoption of the new U. S. Constitution changed things. Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court held that New Hampshire could not seize Dartmouth College and turn the institution into a state school. The school’s private charter with the British Crown involved private property and was a contract. Marshall and the Court invoked the Contracts Clause of Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution which provides that “no state shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.” The prohibition against impairing the obligation of contracts thus applies to states as well as to private parties.

In one of his numerous appearances before the Supreme Court, a young Daniel Webster successfully argued and won the case on behalf of Dartmouth College.

The U. S. Congress’ constitutional power to create a national bank had been controversial since Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton first successfully argued for it during President George Washington’s first term as President. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, also in Washington’s Cabinet, had argued against Congress’ power to create the bank. The charter of the first Bank of the United States had been allowed to expire, but in 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the U. S. The largest branch of this bank was located in Baltimore, Maryland. Like Jefferson at an earlier time, Maryland did not believe that Congress had the power under the Constitution to create banks. The state decided to drive the bank out of business by passing a law placing a tax on all banks “not incorporated by the state” which meant the Baltimore branch of the Bank of the United States. Maryland asserted that Congress had no constitutional power to charter banks and that even if it did, a state could tax the bank. In this early federalism case, speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Congress had the power to create a national bank. The creation of a bank was an implied power of Congress.

Marshall pointed out that while the power to charter banks does not appear in the list of Congress’ enumerated powers found in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, the creation of a bank was a means of executing its enumerated powers: “Although, among the enumerated powers of government, we do not find the word ‘bank,’…we find the great powers to lay and collect taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce…” Those enumerated powers, when combined with the power given Congress in Paragraph 18 of Section 8 “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers,” authorized Congress’ action. This interpretation broadly expanded the power of Congress to enact laws over subjects not specifically mentioned in the Constitution.

Marshall asserted that the people, not the states, were the agents of the Constitution’s establishment. He invoked the supremacy clause of Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution in the Court’s ruling that Maryland could not tax the national bank. Marshall noted that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” By that he meant that a state could impose a tax so burdensome that the entity, in this case the national bank, would not be able to survive.

A corrupt Georgia legislature sold millions of acres of public lands for pennies per acre to four land companies which in turn sold the land to private individuals. When the corruption was discovered, the voters of Georgia defeated the corrupt members of the state’s legislature and chose a new legislature. This new Georgia legislature then passed a law rescinding the sale of the land. Fletcher had purchased land from Peck and wanted to make sure he had legal title to it so he challenged the constitutionality of the new Georgia legislature’s rescinding law. Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court ruled that the original sale, even though tainted by corruption, was legal because the Georgia legislature legally had the right to sell public lands. In addition, both Fletcher and Peck were innocent third parties untainted by the corruption. Most importantly, however, the Court ruled that the contracts clause of Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution applies to states as well as private parties. For the first time, in Fletcher v Peck, the Supreme Court declared a state law unconstitutional, thus establishing the Court’s power under judicial review to do so.
In 1808 the New York Legislature awarded Robert Fulton’s steamboat company the exclusive right to issue licenses to steamboats operating in New York waters. In 1811, Fulton in turn granted Aaron Ogden a license to operate steamboats between New York and New Jersey. In 1818, the U. S. Congress, using the power given Congress by the commerce clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, granted Thomas Gibbons a license to engage in the coastal trade and operate steamboats between New York and New Jersey. Ogden sued and won an injunction in a New York state court forbidding Gibbons from operating his boats in New York waters. After obtaining the services of Daniel Webster as his lawyer, Gibbons appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. Speaking through Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Gibbons and thus Congress’ power. Writing about Congress’ power under the commerce clause, Marshall stated: “This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the Constitution.” According to Marshall, one important purpose of the new Constitution was to “rescue [the United States] from the embarrassing and destructive consequences, resulting from the legislation of so many different States, and to place it under the protection of a uniform law.” Furthermore, Marshall and the Court invoked the supremacy clause of Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution and affirmed that state laws that contradict constitutional acts of Congress must yield. The Court acknowledged that states can enact laws that regulate interstate commerce but only if these laws do not interfere with national laws. If a state law does interfere, national law preempts state law and the state law is invalid.