Musings on the Constitutional Czars in the Hall of Fame Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan Venkatachari Lakshminarayanan

Musings on the Constitutional Czars in the
Hall of Fame
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Venkatachari Lakshminarayanan

1- John Marshall

The first of the Constitutional Czars is Chief Justice John Marshall of the US Supreme Court. His assertion of power of judicial review of legislative actions is inextricably linked to constitutional law of every Republic. The immediate fall out would be entry into Marbury v. Madison (1803) 1 Cranch 137. What a fascinating history and constitutional story it began. ‘That John Marshall became the Chief Justice was a happenstance’ says Justice R F Nariman. Welcome to our constitutional reverie!

John Marshall (September 24, 1755 – July 6, 1835) was a soldier, politician lawyer and a jurist. He served as the fourth Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835. He remains the longest serving Chief Justice, the fourth longest serving justice in Supreme Court history. By his judgements, he fortified the fragile Union of USA and is rightly regarded as one of the most influential justices to ever sit on the Supreme Court. Prior to joining the Supreme Court (and for one month simultaneous to his tenure as Chief Justice), Marshall served as the fourth United States Secretary of State under President John Adams. The divorce between executive and judiciary was yet to take place in a formal way.

In 1780, John Marshall started his law practice, defending clients against pre-war British creditors. From 1782 to 1795, he held various political offices, including the position of secretary of state in 1800. Marshall was born on September 24, 1755, in rural Fauquier County, near Germantown on the Virginia frontier. He was the first of 15 children born to Thomas Marshall and Mary Randolph Keith. His father was a land surveyor for Lord Fairfax, and made a tidy income; his cousin was Humphrey Marshall, who would later become a U.S. senator for Kentucky. Marshall and his father were descendants of colonist William Randolph, who had helped establish the Commonwealth of Virginia. His mother, Mary Keith was related to Thomas Jefferson, the President with whom Marshall would have constitutional duels later on.

As a child, Marshall was mainly home-schooled by his father. He did, however, spend one year at Campbell Academy (founded by Reverend Archibald Campbell) in Westmoreland County. James Monroe, who would later on occupy the Presidentship, was his classmate.

John Marshall, who had almost no formal schooling and studied law for only six weeks, nevertheless remains the only judge in American history whose distinction as a statesman derived almost entirely from his judicial career. To his credit, he had read William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Following a diplomatic mission to France, he won election to Congress, where he supported President John Adams. Adams appointed him Secretary of State and in 1801 Chief Justice, a position he held until death.

Combat experience during the American Revolution helped him develop a continental viewpoint. After admission to the Bar in 1780, he entered the Virginia assembly and rose rapidly in state politics. He had good looks, a charismatic personality, and a debater’s gifts. A Federalist in politics, he championed the Constitution in his state’s ratification convention.

John Jay, the first Chief Justice, who had resigned, described the Court as lacking ‘weight’ and ‘respect.’ After Marshall no one could make that complaint. In 1801, he and his colleagues had to meet in a tiny room in the basement of the Capitol because the planners of Washington D. C., had forgotten to provide space for the Supreme Court. Marshall made the Judiciary a prestigious, coordinate branch of the government. In 1824, Senator Martin Van Buren, a political enemy, conceded that the Court attracted ‘idolatry’ and its chief was admired ‘as the ablest Judge now sitting upon any judicial bench in the world.’

America and Americans truly believe that it was John Marshall who saved the Constitution and America. America was a Confederacy of 13 separate States which called themselves as ‘nations’. ‘There was nothing to unite them except geography’ said Akhil Amar, a Yale Law Professor. The Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia in 1787, after the first one in Minnesota failed, ‘was not even known to replace the Articles of Confederation’ as James Madison, one of the founders said later. 55 Founders met and decided that Articles of Confederation were ‘too divisive’ as the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin put it. ‘We needed to unite and framing a Constitution was the only way’ said US first President and revolutionary leader George Washington. John Marshall fought two wars under George Washington and was his admirer. That ‘more perfect union, the founders set out to achieve, in the Constitution became the motto for John Marshall to lead his Court into’ as Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe opined.

How did John Marshall become the Chief Justice? In the US, it is the President who appoints the Judges to the Supreme Court including the Chief Justice. Marshall was the Secretary of State of John Adams, the outgoing President. John Marshall was the second cousin of Thomas Jefferson, a founder, who defeated John Adams in the Presidential elections. And if we suggest that Marbury v. Madison was a conspiratorial judgment that John Marshall manipulated and maneuvered to assert judicial supremacy, it would seem preposterous. A downright sacrilege and blasphemy against the greatest constitutional czar that has lived, it would appear. Nonetheless, the life and times of John Marshall is so full of suspense, thrill and interest, let us take a joyous constitutional ride with him. He may have a lot to tell and entertain us. Shall we?

( Authors are practising advocates in the Madras High Court)

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