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The Supreme Court’s early years: When censorship was constitutional?

In the first decade-plus of its history, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down zero congressional enactments.

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

In the first decade-plus of its history, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down zero congressional enactments.

At the risk of being slightly snarky, I would point out that the first two presidents (George Washington and John Adams) were Federalists, the first Congresses were dominated by Federalists, so all of the early Supreme Court appointees were nominated and confirmed by members of the same party that was also passing and signing all the laws and, coincidentally or not, none of the laws were struck down, nor even challenged, as unconstitutional.

This is especially noteworthy because in 1798 the Federalist-dominated Congress passed and President John Adams signed the blatantly unconstitutional and highly partisan Alien and Sedition acts which, among other things, made it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to:

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“Write, print, utter or publish, or … cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or … knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States.”

In other words: No criticizing the government (although technically the criticism has to be false, scandalous or malicious).

Under this law, 25 men, many of them editors of newspapers supportive of the nation’s first opposition party, the Democratic Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were arrested and prosecuted. Some went to prison. In many instances, the newspapers were shut down. The First Amendment – “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” — was on the books and in effect.

Jefferson and Madison were learned in the law. Madison was the “father of the Constitution” and the chief author of the Bill of Rights, which included the free speech and press guarantees that were so blatantly flouted by the Alien and Sedition Acts. And the acts were clearly intended to intimidate and silence members of the Jeffersonian party. Yet, neither of them, nor anyone else, started a legal action seeking to have the Alien and Sedition Acts overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

This is hard to understand if, at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it had been understood that the Supreme Court had this authority.

Instead, Jefferson and Madison redoubled their efforts to win the next election, making the Alien and Sedition Acts an issue against Adams and the Federalists. And they did win, which set the stage for the jaw-dropping developments that lead up to the Marbury v. Madison case, which established or created or made the first use of the Supreme Court’s power strike down congressional enactments that – in the court’s opinion – violated the Constitution.

The late professor Alexander Bickel, one of the leading 20th century scholars of constitutional law, once said of the Marbury ruling: “It is hallowed; it is revered. If it had a physical presence, like the Alamo or Gettysburg, it would be a tourist attraction.”

In the previous installment, I call the Marbury case “a stinkpot of hardball politics, partisanship, questionable logic and conflicts of interest.” I will attempt to back up that statement, beginning with the factual background of the case:

The Midnight Judges

John Adams deserves tremendous credit. After losing his bid for reelection in 1800, he became the first president to peacefully surrender power. There are still plenty of countries that can’t take a peaceful transition of power for granted. In the United States, many presidents have been defeated for reelection and never once has there been any question that the incumbent would peacefully accede to the will of the electorate.

On the other hand, Adams had several months to serve (in those days, the new president wasn’t inaugurated until March) and he still had a cooperative Federalist-dominated Congress.

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Adams and the lame-duck Congress used those last months of power to, among other things, pass laws creating a great many new judicial positions and rushing through appointments of loyal Federalist to fill what the Constitution mandated would be lifetime appointments to federal judgeships. This was constitutional, but not really cricket. It’s also another example of a vulnerability that the framers inadvertently built into the system because of their belief that the republic they were designing would operate without the kind of partisanship that almost immediately developed.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inIn addition, Adams nominated and the Federalist Senate quickly confirmed John Marshall as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court. Leader of the Virginia Federalist Party, a rising national star of the pro-Adams party, one of President-elect Jefferson’s least favorite people (although they were cousins), Marshall was at the time of his appointment a young and healthy 45-year-old.

Adams’ binge of judicial appointments is known to history as the Midnight Judgeships. Among those appointed were Adams’ son-in-law, Marshall’s brother and two of Marshall’s in-laws.

Oh, and while they were vastly expanding the federal judiciary, the Midnight Congress also reduced the size of the Supreme Court from six justice to five, for the undisguised purpose of postponing the day when Jefferson would have an opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. As I mentioned earlier, the Constitution did not specify the size of the Supreme Court, and it has been altered many times, generally for partisan reasons or to deprive a particular president of appointments.

One Federalist upon whom Adams bestowed a midnight judgeship — actually a mere Washington D.C. justice of the peace-ship — was William Marbury.

In the haste to complete all the paperwork for so many appointments, Marbury was one of several appointees for whom the commission was signed and sealed but not delivered by Inauguration Day. When Jefferson took over the (still-under-construction) White House, he decided not to complete the appointments of the judges that were still in process. Marbury sued, demanding his lifetime sinecure. James Madison (Jefferson’s new secretary of state) was the named defendant in the case, which would become perhaps the most famous in U.S. legal history.

Jefferson was furious about the midnight judgeships, writing to a friend that the defeated Federalists had “retired into the judiciary as a stronghold… There the remains of federalism are to be preserved and fed from the treasury, and from that battery all the works of Republicanism are to be beaten down and erased by a fraudulent use of the constitution which has made judges irremovable, they have multiplied useless judges merely to strengthen their phalanx.”

In fact, the Federalist Party would soon wither and disappear, leaving behind no serious national political organization. But John Marshall would remain on the court throughout the presidencies of both Jefferson and Madison and several more presidents after them, eventually setting the longevity record that still stands of more than 34 years as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall’s career, in a sense, set a precedent for the recent practice of presidents appointing young, healthy justices who would carry influence of the appointing president and his party and his ideology decades into the future regardless of election results. There is little reason to believe that this is what the Framers had in mind when they decided to make federal judicial appointments good for life.

Although he remained ideologically “federalist” in the sense that he believed in a strong national government, Marshall’s key institutional loyalty transferred from a political party to a branch of the government. Marshall built the power of the federal judiciary beyond anything conceived by the Framers.

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But in 1801, as he and Jefferson faced off across branch lines, Jefferson held the whip hand.

The Supreme Court’s early years
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

In 1802, Jefferson and his allies in Congress passed a bill uncreating many of the judgeships that had been signed into existence by Adams. You could, if you chose, view those repeal bills as unconstitutional.

Abolishing federal judgeships has the effect of firing the judges in those positions, which certainly violates the spirit and perhaps the essence of the lifetime tenure provision (although it’s easy to understand why Jefferson might have felt justified in pursuing such a strategy, considering the way the judgeships had come into existence).

The repeal issue didn’t result in a constitutional court case (more evidence, by the way, that judicial review wasn’t much in the air). But if it had reached the Supreme Court, and if Marshall had struck down the repeal and ordered Jefferson to reinstate the judges and resume paying them, there is every possibility that Jefferson would have ignored the order, with impunity, which would have resulted in exactly the opposite of establishing the power of judicial review or judicial supremacy over constitutional matters.

Marbury’s lawsuit, however, seeking the judicial appointment that had been signed and sealed but not delivered, did come before the court.

The Jefferson administration showed its contempt for the proceedings (and for Marshall) by refusing to defend itself or participate in the case in any way. This could be taken as yet another warning to Marshall that if he ordered Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission, the Jefferson administration would disregard the order, thus setting what might be the opposite of the precedent Marshall hoped to set.

This will come as a surprise, but it’s an important technical fact. The Supreme Court, with Marshall presiding, didn’t get the case on appeal but conducted the actual trial and heard the testimony, which showed that Marbury had been legally appointed by Adams, confirmed by the lame duck Federalist-controlled Senate and that his commission had been prepared, but that Adams’ secretary of state had failed to get the paperwork delivered by the last day of Adams’ term.

Article III of the Constitution assigns the Supreme Court original jurisdiction in a few small categories of cases (such as those involving ambassadors, for example). The Constitution says that the high court will hear appeals in other categories of federal cases “with such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.”

In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress availed itself of that language about exceptions and assigned the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over cases in which a plaintiff is trying to get the court to order a federal official to do something like, in this case, order Secretary of State Madison to give Marbury his commission.

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After hearing the case, Chief Justice Marshall devised a clever — or diabolical or possibly diabolically clever — solution to his dilemma. He ruled that Marbury was right and should have received his commission. But Marshall’s landmark decision also ruled the Supreme Court could not order Madison to give Marbury’s appointment because Congress, in passing the Judiciary Act of 1789, had exceeded its constitutional authority by assigning the Supreme Court to hear cases like Marbury’s because the Constitution sets out the limited kinds of cases in which the Supreme Court holds original jurisdiction.

Now that constitutional language, mentioned above, does empower Congress to make exceptions to the Supreme Court’s role as a trial court. If, in the spirit of Chief Justice John Roberts’ recent ruling on the health care law, Marshall believed that it was his duty to show deference to the elected branches and find a statute constitutional if there was any way to do so, he had plenty of ways to do so.

But no, Marshall concluded that the constitutional language didn’t mean Congress could give the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the Marbury case. So Marshall ruled that Marbury deserved to get his commission, but the Supreme Court couldn’t order Madison to give it to him because Congress had violated the Constitution when it assigned additional jurisdiction to the Supreme Court. That portion of the 1789 law was the first ever to be struck down as unconstitutional and that aspect of Marshall’s ruling established or discovered or invented the power of judicial review.

Was it unconstitutional?

In my haste to introduce Chief Justice Marshall above, I neglected to tell you one important fact of his biography. In 1788, at the tender age of 33, already a minor war hero (who served under Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge), already a member of the Virginia Legislature, Marshall was chosen to serve on the Virginia ratifying convention that ultimately, and narrowly, voted to accept the draft of the Constitution.

I mention this because to strict “textualists” like today’s Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the quest for the “original meaning” of the words in the Constitution is not limited to the meaning intended by those who wrote it, but the meaning as understood by those who ratified it and even by those who voted for those who ratified it. As a member of the Virginia ratifying convention, Marshall’s “understanding” of what the words in the Constitution meant would be of above-average importance.

Still, there are some serious problems with Marshall as the explicator of the original understanding of the 1789 law that he struck down. For example…

The Supreme Court’s early years
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

How about this: The act that was adopted in 1789 – by the very first Congress – was signed into law by President Washington, who had presided over the Constitutional Convention itself and who had taken the constitutionally prescribed oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” but who had nonetheless signed a law that was (according to Marshall) unconstitutional.

And this: That first Congress included 13 members who had also been delegates to the Constitutional Convention, all of whom appear to have supported the 1789 law that Marshall ruled unconstitutional. In fact, the Senate sponsor of the law, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, had not only been an influential member of the Constitutional Convention but had then been Washington’s nominee as chief justice of the Supreme Court, where he had served a few years and retired, creating the vacancy that President Adams had filled with John Marshall.

And if you can stand it: Among those joining Marshall’s unanimous opinion that the Judiciary Act violated the Constitution was William Paterson of New Jersey, who had been a member of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 that wrote the Constitution, then a member of the first Senate in 1789 when it passed the Judiciary Act, which Paterson supported, then an associate justice of the Supreme Court who concurred with Marshall in 1803 that the law (for which he had voted)  violated the Constitution (which he had helped draft).

But I’ve been saving this for last: (By rights I should have disclosed this several paragraphs ago but I saved it for the big finish.)

The reason Madison was the named defendant in Marbury v. Madison is that in those days the secretary of state was in charge of the paperwork for appointments like Marbury’s. So it was the secretary of state in the last days of the Adams Administration who had failed to get Marbury’s commission out the door in time, which gave rise to the whole lawsuit.

And that secretary of state was John Marshall. Yes, same John Marshall. In fact, Marshall had been sworn in as chief justice of the Supreme Court and still hadn’t resigned as secretary of state on the last day of the Adams presidency, which is weird enough on its own, but also means that, in his new capacity as chief justice, Marshall was sitting in judgment of his own failure, in his former capacity as secretary of state, to complete Marbury’s appointment.

Nowadays, we would call that a conflict of interest requiring Justice Marshall to recuse himself from presiding over the case in which Secretary Marshall played such a large role.

Other than to Marbury (whose home in Georgetown, by the way, is now the Ukrainian Embassy to the United States), the question of his justice of the peaceship is relatively unimportant to history. And given the totality of the circumstances described, I think it is reasonable to suspect that Marshall wasn’t exactly calling them as he saw them but rather trying to find a way out of his dilemma while aggrandizing the power of the judicial branch by establishing the doctrine which has come to be called “judicial supremacy,” which means mostly that in deciding issues of the proper meaning of the Constitution, the ruling of the Supreme Court is the final word.

If Marshall had ordered Jefferson and Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission, they would almost certainly have defied him, or even ignored him, which would have been a serious blow to the court’s prestige. By giving Jefferson no orders to defy, he seems to have accomplished both purposes and may have succeeded beyond his wildest hopes.

In a way, it creates a weird link to the case with which I started the previous installment, the Watergate tapes case. If President Richard Nixon thought he had the option of defying the court and destroying the Watergate tapes, he might well have done so. But two centuries after Marbury, such defiance of a Supreme Court ruling seemed almost unthinkable.

This installment has run on too long. But after all the disrespect I have displayed for Chief Justice Marshall’s conduct in this matter, I will begin the next installment with the famous, elegant statement he made in his Marbury ruling explaining the rationale for  the power of judicial review.