The Most Important Case Ever Decided by Any Court Began with a Petty Dispute Over a Patronage Job

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael J. Glennon, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, writing in the Wilson Quarterly (Summer 2003):

The most monumental case ever decided by any court in any country began as a petty dispute over a patronage job. The underlying controversy quickly blossomed into a clash between two titans of the early American republic, and it ended with the unveiling of a new judicial doctrine that would alter the course of American history and spread around the world to protect the liberty of hundreds of millions of people.

The doctrine was judicial review—the practice by which courts strike down acts of other governmental entities—and it led to such epoch-making Supreme Court judgments as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended the legal racial segregation of public schools, and United States v. Nixon (1974), in which the Court ordered Pres­ident Richard Nixon to turn over certain potentially relevant audiotapes to the Watergate court. It also gave the nation Roe v. Wade (1973). Judicial review is American constitutionalism’s greatest gift to the world—an arguably greater gift than the U.S. constitutional model itself. Unlike many other features of the new American government, the practice was virtually without precedent when the Supreme Court announced it in Marbury v. Madison (1803). An English case in 1610 had intimated that an act of Parliament “against common right and reason” was void under the common law, and the English Privy Council was later empowered to invalidate colonial statutes that ran counter to the colonial charters or English law. But nowhere in the world before 1803 did the courts of any country engage in the practice of striking down laws inconsistent with the national constitution.

William Marbury (1762–1835), a prominent Maryland land speculator who sued the U.S. government to claim a job as a federal justice of the peace, was only a bit player in the high drama to which he gave his name. Two larger figures—Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the third president of the United States, and John Marshall (1755–1835), who was chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835—dominated the stage....

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