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Lecture focuses on Marshall’s impact on Supreme Court

Posted on 11.21.2017

University of Indianapolis History and Political Science Instructor David Root delivered a lecture about former Chief Justice John Marshall on Nov. 15 in UIndy Hall as part of the History and Political Science Department’s Symposium Series.

Root started off by telling the audience about Marshall’s early life before he became a Supreme Court Justice. Root said that Marshall had grown up in rural Virginia and spent some time as a soldier at Valley Forge during the American Revolution.

According to Root, Marshall was admitted to the bar in 1780 and spent time in the Virginia state legislature before being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in February 1801.
Marshall was, at the time of his appointment, also serving as Secretary of State, according to Root, which raised some Constitutional questions that were never addressed.

Root said that Marshall built the Supreme Court and that it would not be the way it is today without his influence.

“[The Supreme Court] very likely would have been a very suppressed branch of federal government and with that it disrupts separation of powers, checks and balances,” Root said. “Our governmental system would be completely different than it is today, if he had not done what he did.”

Root also provided background on what the Supreme Court was like in its early days. Marshall used his influence as the Chief Justice to make the other justices come to a unanimous decision on cases and that the decision usually followed what Marshall wanted, according to Root.

“He was able to exercise autocratic leadership on an institution that is democratically built and over time that democracy or democratic default has grown on the court,” Root said.

According to Root, when Marshall was the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court only met for two to three months out of the year and the justices lived together in boardinghouse during those sessions.

Marshall’s first case as Chief Justice was the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, according to Root. He said that this case made the concept of “judiciary review” an important part of the Supreme Court’s duties and that this case was Marshall’s way to assert the power of the court.

According to Root, in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819, Marshall used his authority to unilaterally postpone the Court’s decision in the case until the next session without informing the other justices.

Root said that Marshall then wrote a letter to the New York Supreme Court’s Chief Justice to ask him to convince some of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices to join Marshall’s side. When the case was decided, the Court ruled that private colleges have the right to stay private and cannot be forced by the state to become public, according to Root.

In McCulloch v. Marlyand, in 1819, the Court’s decision established important constitutional rules, according to Root. He said that the Court was not originally unanimous in their decision, and that Marshall made life difficult for the justices who had not agreed with his position. At points, Marshall woke up those justices in the middle of the night and repeatedly bothered them until they switched to his position, according to Root.

Root said that he believes that there will never be another Chief Justice like Marshall. According to Root, Marshall’s leadership style is a style that could never be repeated.

“His brand of leadership…was unique to his court,” Root said. “It’s way too entrenched now to have a chief justice, or really any justice, come in and tell them, the other justices, what they’re going to do. That leadership style is Marshall’s alone.”

The Symposium ended with a Q&A session, where Root said that the current Supreme Court bench is the result of political polarization and that Marshall was trying to build a Court that has the power to do its Constitutional duties.

Freshman psychology major Hanna Burris thought that Root’s presentation was very entertaining.

“He was really good at portraying John Marshall himself and he was very good about showing how the Supreme Court changed over time,” Burris said.

This was the third and last History and Political Science Department Symposium of the fall semester, according to Root. He said that there will be three more symposiums in the spring of 2018.

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