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Critical Overview of The Supreme Court Judges and Their Major Cases

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John Marshall, appointed by Federalist John Adams, was one of the greatest justices of the Supreme Court; because he avoided corruption, was a level judge of constitutionality, and did not “legislate from the bench.” He was one of the longest-serving justices of the Supreme Court (serving a term from 1801 to 1835), and made court decisions that helped to shape judicial law in America, which had been newly united under the Constitution. Marshall was a great defender of federal power, and his court decisions unified the judiciary under federal authority without undercutting legislation. His rulings also helped to create a stable business environment though increased national unification. Because he was an intransigent federalist, his position as justice of the Supreme Court helped to keep the less federally-rooted branches of government in check, and prevented democratic excesses.

One of his most important cases was Marbury v. Madison, which took place in 1803. With the majority, Marshall affirmed Marbury’s right to their commissions, establishing the policy of judicial review, which gave the Supreme Court the power to determine the constitutionality of laws. Marshal boldly stated that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This new power made the Supreme Court equal in influence to the executive and legislative branches. As a Hamiltonian federalist, Marshall was a loose constructionist when it came to constitutional rulings. Though he interpreted the Constitution loosely, the way he interpreted it generally yielded fair and clairvoyant rulings. He believed the constitution was “intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

This was further exemplified in his wise majority ruling on the McCulloch v. Maryland case, which established the doctrine of “implied powers”—using stretchable clauses of the Constitution such as the “necessary and proper” clause and the “general welfare” clause, and that “…the powers given to the government imply the ordinary means of execution. The government which has the right to do an act and has imposed on it the duty of performing that act, must, according to the dictates of reason, be allowed to select the means.” It also asserted the authority of federal power over state power, as it denied states the power to tax the national bank, or any other federal institution. In the treason trial of Aaron Burr, Marshall honored Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, which stated that the accused could not be convicted without the testimony of two witnesses.

John Marshall helped to bring about the national unification of the judiciary though subordination of state courts to federal courts. In 1821, Marshall reinforced this judicial nationalism and put appellate jurisdiction into practice in the Cohens v. Virginia case, which brought a case that had already been decided by Virginia’s Court to the Supreme Court. Marshall’s Cohens decision was wise because it began the push for judicial nationalism and unification under the federal government, and was in part an attempt to prevent biased decisions and corruption, as he once wrote: “…In many states, the judges are dependent for office and for salary on the will of the legislature.”

He also recused himself from Fairfax’s Devisee v. Hunter’s and Lessee Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, due to the fact that he and his brother had contracted part of the land that was being disputed over. This was a very responsible action taken to prevent his own possible bias. Although he was a federalist forced to participate in largely democratic administrations, Marshall did not excessively interfere with legislation. In the Gibbons v. Oden decision of 1824, he actually asserted congress’s power to control interstate commerce. When Marshall did intervene with legislators, such as in Fletcher v. Peck, it was to prevent corruption caused by bribery. The Fletcher decision also determined the Supreme Court’s power to invalidate unconstitutional or corrupt state laws.

Aside form defining the role of the judiciary and strengthening the role of the federal government, John Marshall also safeguarded business enterprise. In the Dartmouth College v. Woodward decision, the court ruled that state courts could not alter or invalidate a private contract. This, too, accrued a great deal of power to the federal courts rather than those of the states. Although popular power is a vital and precious component of our democracy, it is also important that the States that make up the United States truly are United, on not only an economic, but also a political level. Chief Justice John Marshall ensured that America developed into a centrally unified nation, and that the federal power was distributed equally among the three branches. His centralizing efforts and wise rulings helped to forge a stronger America.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, jr., was a truly great justice of the Supreme Court because he avoided corruption through minimizing bias, remained constitutional in his decisions, and was a bulwark against judicial activism. Holmes was appointed by republican Theodore Roosevelt and served from 1902 to 1932. He believed that “morally tinted words have caused a great deal of confused thinking,” and that a Justice’s personal prejudices and moral beliefs should not be a factor in determining their court decisions. This non-partisan, non-denominational view of justice is what made him one of the least corrupt justices of all time.

His refusal to mix morals with law was present in his Buck v. Bell majority decision that allowed a punitively below-average intelligence woman to be sterilized. His moral cynicism was clear in his argument, “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Though, to me, this ruling seems un-wise and is ethically distasteful; Holmes stood by the decision because he believed he was, and in truth may have been, carrying out the law levelly, without the influence of popular, priestly, or partisan opinion.

Justice Holmes was also a protector of the first amendment right of free speech, and taught a new legal philosophy concerning the meaning of law and the mode by which the Constitution should be interpreted. He stressed a break from formalism and encouraged “legal realism,”—the idea that “the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” He believed that judges should understand historical, social, and economic aspects of law, and, as he stated in the Lochner v. New York case, “that law should be developed with society.” In Abrams v. United States, he wisely dissented against the breach of first amendment rights. The majority decision affirmed the constitutionality of the espionage act and condemned two men who published anti-war pamphlets to 20 years of prison. In this case, Holmes further insisted upon his philosophy that the constitution is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” His loose construction and view, much like Marshall’s, that the constitution was an adaptable document did not over-stretch the bounds of constitutionality and did not give too much power to the Judiciary; but, rather, provided an increased capacity for change.

Above all, Holmes (the “great dissenter”) was an antagonist of judicial activism. He believed in the doctrine of “judicial restraint,” which taught that the court could and should not interpret the constitution based on personal philosophies. He thought it was the job of the legislators to determine what the laws should be, and that the judiciary’s powers should not become overgrown so much as to dominate the legislative branch. He proved this by dissenting when the court stuck down progressive law after progressive law. An example of this is the Adkins v. Children’s Hospital case, in which the majority attempted to strike down a law passed by congress that guaranteed a minimum wage to women and children employed in the District of Columbia. His decision to dissent was wise in a sense that it was a move against judicial activism, and (though probably not his intent) it supported workers and women’s rights. His un-biased view of law and interpreting the constitution, as well as his opposition to judicial activism, made Oliver Wendell Holmes, jr., a truly great Justice.

Earl Warren was an admittedly good justice of the Supreme Court because, although he pushed his own legislative agenda, his rulings avoided and even fought against corruption. His very loose construction of the constitution allowed him to make the changes that were necessary to move America forward in a time of intense racial tension and social disorder. Many of his rulings protected the civil liberties enumerated in the Bill of rights, largely of first amendment rights, but also the rights of minority groups like blacks and women. The highly liberal Justice Warren was appointed by democrat Dwight Eisenhower, and served from 1953 to 1969. His most renowned case, Brown v. Board of Education, took place in 1954. His ruling that all public schools should be racially integrated contradicted the “separate but equal” policy exercised by previous justices by declaring that segregation was inherently unequal. He further claimed, “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” By changing the established precedent of previous court rulings, it can be argued that Warren stretched the Constitution a little too far. However, it must also be noted that racial integration in schools was an impending and necessary change. For this reason, the Brown decision was a very wise one.

Justice Warren was truly a champion of civil rights in America. In the Griswold v. Connecticut decision, he increased freedom for women by striking down laws against contraception. In New York Times v. Sullivan He increased the freedom of the press by declaring that the First Amendment protected the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials. Engel v. Vitale and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp increased religious freedom by further separating church and state and ending prayer and bible reading in public schools (this decision was highly controversial and is still unpopular with many Americans today). All these rulings made profound changes in legality while bypassing legislation, but the reality was, Congress was not taking legislative action during the civil rights movement. So, Warren’s court did. Conservatives scorned his judicial activism, but Warren’s supporters concluded that “legislation by the judiciary” was better than no legislation at all.

Warren was also somewhat of a populist, and preached the idiom of equal representation, “one man, one vote.” In Reynolds v. Sims, the Supreme Court ruled that legislation should be made proportional to population. Warren stated, “. . . the weight of a citizens vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. . . A citizen, a qualified voter, is no more nor no less so because he lives in the city or on the farm . . . the Equal Protection Clause demands no less than substantially equal state legislative representation for all citizens, of all places as well as all races.” This was another wise decision, obviously in favor of equality, that also debased legislative authority. But regardless of the fact that Justice Warren “legislated from the bench,” and interpreted the constitution perhaps too loosely, his decisions and constitutional interpretation was made with thought to the future, and in light of the times. Justice Warren’s active part in making America a more tolerant and egalitarian nation, despite his unconventional methods, is what made him such a good justice of the Supreme Court.

Roger Brooke Taney was a fairly inadequate justice of the Supreme Court, because he let personal bias influence his rulings as well as his interpretation of the Constitution, and took part in judicial activism. Taney was chief justice of the Supreme Court from1836 to1864, and was appointed by democrat Andrew Jackson. Unlike Chief Justice Marshall, Taney was a Jacksonian democrat; and, although himself somewhat of a loose constructionist, led the court away from more progressive, loose-constructionist decisions and more toward the strict-constructionist tendencies of the democratic party. Also contrary to Marshall, he supported local property owners over big business and monopolies, as well as some states rights rather than complete federal dominance.

The Briscoe v The Bank of Kentucky case of 1837 showed a break from Marshall’s nationalistic policies, as it sided with the state bank—which had issued bank notes contrary to the prohibition against states emitting Bills of Credit (found in Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution). Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge reflected another victory for states rights, as the autonomy of the Massachusetts state legislature was recognized; and by permitting the construction of the warren bridge, Taney showed that he had no sympathy for monopolies or Wall Street’s interests. Although Taney’s strict-construction may be considered more “constitutional,” it is not necessarily more morally right or progressive. In fact, the minimally amended Constitution of Taney’s day was far from color (or gender) blind. It was easy for Taney to find constitutional support to act on his beliefs that blacks were “a weak and credulous race,” and that their emancipation would mean “absolute ruin to the negroes, as well as to the white population.”

By far, Taney’s most famous and longest-running case was Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, in which he agreed with the majority decision. This decision defined slaves as property, not people, and declared that the federal government would not recognize their citizenship: “It is true, every person, and every class and description of persons who were at the time of the adoption of the Constitution recognized as citizens in the several states, became also citizens of this new political body; but none other; it was formed by them and for them and their posterity, but for no one else.”

In the Dred Scott Decision, Taney also struck down the Compromise of 1820—a statute that outlawed slavery in the territories—in order to achieve a personal policy objective; prevent civil war though Southern appeasement (the ruling actually had the reverse effect). This was a clear case of judicial activism, as Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution clearly grants congress legislative authority over U.S. territories: “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” Because of this aggressive interference with legislation, many Northern Republicans refused to accept Taney’s ruling, furthering tensions in the divided nation.

It may also have been appropriate for Taney to recuse himself from the Dred Scot case, because he had an obvious bias, being from the slave state of Maryland, and was good friends with Sandford’s attorney, Reverdy Johnson. He was also among the majority in Ableman v. Booth (1859), which declared the Fugitive Slave Act constitutional and condemned it’s nullification by state courts, and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1841), which declared “…that under and in virtue of the constitution, the owner of a slave is clothed with entire authority, in every state in the Union, to seize and recapture his slave, whenever he can do it…” are further examples of his pro-slavery bias effecting his court decisions, and rendering them—like the Dred Scot decision—un-wise both ethically and in respect to preserving the Union. Although he did recuse himself from The Bank of the United States v. The United States, in which he had obvious conflict of interest, he proceeded to write a discursive essay disagreeing with the court’s ruling and published it as an “Appendix” to the court decision. Overall, Taney’s career as a justice of the Supreme Court was marred by his racist rulings and judicial activism in the Dred Scott case.

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Critical Overview Of The Supreme Court Judges And Their Major Cases. (2019, August 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
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