Once upon a time there were several men planning out the best way to divide the power in a fledgling new country. Some of them wanted one big power, and others wanted three smaller ones where the power was roughly equally divided. Eventually they went with the idea of the three powers and everyone appeared to be relatively content with that. However, the two bigger and more important powers, the Executive and Legislative, started getting quite power-hungry and way too big. The smaller, last power, the Judicial, started getting a little bit jealous of the other two–until a man by the name of John Marshall and his friends, the Federalists, got ahold of Judicial and turned everything around.
The Constitution of the United States of America did not do much by way of outlining the powers held by the Supreme Court. Judicial power was the very last of the three main branches of government to be specified. In the early days of the Courts power, it was left up to the justices to assert their power and flex their political muscles. Especially in the term of John Marshall was the judiciary power defined and enforced to lay down the foundation for the trends in the Supreme Court still observed today.
It was in the early days of America that the Court heard those cases which would first define their judicial power. In 1803 it began with the case of William Marbury v. James Madison. According to the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court could take only those cases of appellate jurisdiction, which came on appeals, the only exception being those cases involving foreign diplomats and ambassadors. During Marbury v. Madison (a case of original jurisdiction), Federalist John Marshall was the Chief Justice and Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson was the President. The case revolved around Marbury–also a Federalist– not receiving his commission to serve as justice of the peace because James Madison, Jeffersons Secretary of State, never delivered it. Marshall knew that if he ordered the writ of mandamus to be issued, Jeffersons administration would simply choose to ignore it. Therefore, he cunningly planned his decision out, knowing that although in the short term it was an injury to the Federalists, in the long run it would help assert the Courts power and ability to accept or reject cases.
Marshall claimed that the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the Courts authority, as spelled out by Article III of the Constitution. Jefferson realized the implications of the Courts new invented power, although he had won this particualr case. This decision helped to make the Court the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution and also gave the Court authority to decide on the constitutionality of the acts of Congress. While before the power resided mostly in the Executive and Legislative branches, after Marbury v. Madison the Court was recognized as an equal partner in government.
When the Federalistic Framers of the Constitution drew in Section 10 of Article 1, they knew it would help them preserve one particular thing that was dear to their hearts: private property.This so-called contract clause was heavily enforced during Marshalls tenure, as shown in the cases of Fletcher v. Peck in 1810 and the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819. Fletcher v. Peck involved public lands granted to private individuals through bribery, and the Courts final decision ruled in favor of upholding the contract which seeded the land even though it was fraudulent. Whether the contract was legal or not, Marshalls Court wanted to get the message across that contracts are sacred and that the granting of land is a property right.
The Dartmouth Case involved the colleges original charter, created in 1769, before the United States even existed, which the state of New Hampshire was trying to change so the college would be a public institution rather than private. The final decision recognized the college as a private corporation and called for the protection of private corporations from state intervention under the contract clause.
The balance of power that the Constitution was supposed to preserve shifted greatly so that the national government held the most power after McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819. The Courts decision asserted federal power by highlighting the 10th Amendment and the Necessary and Proper Clause, Article 1 and Section 8. The former states that the powers not allotted to Congress go to the States, and the latter says that Congress has the authority to do anything necessary and proper to carry out its activities. The case preferred national power over the states power.
Another state case came along in 1821 with Cohens v. Virginia. It raised the question of whether the Supreme Court also has the power of judicial review over state cases. The Court decided that yes, they would like to have power over state cases as well. Their reasoning was that it was not the parties involved but the issues, and whether those particular issues raised a question of constitutionality.
Article 1, Section 8 also discusses the Interstate Commerce clause, which was enforced with Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824. Ogden had a monopoly on steamboats using the Hudson River, an interstate waterway because it connects New York and New Jersey. The Court ruled that this interfered with congressional power governing interstate commerce as stated in the clause. Marshall used this decision to his advantage to reject the notion of states and the federal government being equally powerful entities.
The trends during the Marshall years called greatly for the undermining of the states powers, as shown in McCulloch v. Maryland, Cohens v. Virginia and Gibbons v. Ogden. These cases primarily humiliated the individual states and stretched the powers held by Congress. Also another pattern was the protection of property. As stated before, Marshall and the framers of the Constitution were Federalists and called for the preservation of private property and personal gain, and the contract clause was used as often as possible to benefit those notions.
Especially in the case of Marbury v. Madison, one can see how cunning the Federalists were in trying to promote their ideas, taking into consideration that Marshall elected to not having Marbury receive his commission so that eventually it would be to Marshalls benefit and the disadvantage of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Most of his decisions circulated around being advantageous to the Federalists and shifting power more toward the national government, another Federalist goal.