The Chief Justice's Gambit

The Chief Justice's Gambit

By Sean Trende - June 28, 2012

In 1803, the chief justice of the United States had a problem. His hated cousin, Thomas Jefferson, had won the last presidential election. But the outgoing Federalists opted not to go gentle into that good night. The one branch of government they controlled was the judiciary, and they meant to keep it. They had passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which allowed for several new judicial appointments.

President Adams did a remarkable job filling the appointments and getting them hastily confirmed. The so-called “Midnight Judges” by and large received their commissions. But not all of them did. Incoming President Jefferson then instructed his secretary of state not to deliver the remaining ones.

Unsurprisingly, litigation ensued. One of those who was to receive a commission, William Marbury, filed a petition directly in the Supreme Court under a provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789. He requested a writ ordering the secretary of state to deliver his commission.

But Chief Justice John Marshall was a staunch Federalist. The republic was young, the court’s legitimacy fragile, and the ability of the nation to endure the peaceful transfer of power between parties uncertain. It was also unclear how Marshall’s ordering the newly installed Jeffersonian Republican secretary of state to do something would go over.

So the chief justice did something very clever. He found that Marbury was entitled to his commission, bestowing legitimacy on those Midnight Judges who had received theirs. But he didn't stop there -- to Marbury's detriment. He then ruled that the Constitution only gave the court so-called “original jurisdiction” over a small number of cases. The provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 bestowing the court with original jurisdiction over writs of the type Marbury sought was therefore unconstitutional.

Jefferson had won, nominally. Madison didn’t have to deliver the commission, Marbury didn’t refile in the lower courts, and he never became a justice of the peace. But history remembers the case as a huge, perhaps decisive, blow against those Jeffersonians who viewed the Constitution as nothing more than a glorified Articles of Confederation.

In depriving the court of original jurisdiction, Marshall had installed the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of laws. Jefferson hated the idea of what has become known as judicial review. But having won, he was powerless to act against Marshall. Over the course of his term, Marshall would use that power to increase vastly the powers of the federal government, and to diminish those of the states.

* * *

Thursday’s health care ruling shocked most observers. It upheld the health care law as constitutional. But rather than find that the law was justified under Congress’ authority to regulate commerce, it instead found it was justified only under Congress’ power to tax. It also imposed limits upon Congress’ ability to condition spending grants to the states upon those states taking certain steps. To my knowledge, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger was the only person who thought that the court would ultimately rule on those grounds. I certainly was surprised.

Even more surprising, the decision was 5-4, and Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion upholding the law, rather than Anthony Kennedy. Conservatives are flabbergasted by the chief’s decision (or, in their view, betrayal).

But I think if you scratch the surface here, Roberts embarked upon a gambit much like Marshall did 200 years ago. For the results-oriented -- which is to say, most observers on both sides who have been ranting about the Constitution for the past few months -- this is a clear win for the Obama administration, at least in the short term. By removing most legal impediments to the implementation of the law, the odds that the president’s signature legislation will eventually be implemented have risen.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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