A new Justice on a young Supreme Court

John Marshall’s First Day on the Supreme Court

Court opened promptly at 11 a.m. on the cold, rainy morning of February 4, 1801. Just over a decade earlier the Supreme Court was born with the establishment of the Articles of the Constitution.  This day on the Supreme Court was different as seen in the Court’s Minutes state that the commission appointing John Marshall to the position of Chief Justice was “read in open Court, and the said John Marshall having taken the oaths prescribed by Law took his seat upon the Bench.” Marshall, most likely wearing a simple black robe, took his place in a makeshift courtroom in the U.S. Capitol Building.

After routinely admitting six counselors to the Bar, continuing three cases to the next Term and hearing argument in one case, Course  v. Stead’s Exors., the Court adjourned. Few in attendance could have realized it was the beginning of an era that would provide the foundation of constitutional law in the United States. Most newspapers barely noted the event. The National Intelligencer, the leading paper in the new Capital, simply stated that the Justices had “made a Court in Washington.”


Learn More about Justice Marshall with This book of 200 documents written by the Chief Justice John Marshall between the years 1779 and 1835, including Marshall’s most important judicial opinions.  As its Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835, Marshall made the Supreme Court a full and equal branch of the federal government. In so doing, he joined Washington, his mentor, and Jefferson, his ideological rival, in the first rank of American founders. His legacy extends far beyond Marbury, which held for the first time that the Supreme Court has the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. Under his leadership, the Court upheld the constitutionality of a national bank, established the supremacy of the federal judiciary over state courts and legislatures in matters of constitutional interpretation, and profoundly influenced the economic development of the nation through vigorous interpretation of the contract and interstate commerce clauses. His major judicial opinions are eloquent public papers, written with the conviction that “clearness and precision are most essential qualities,” and designed to inform and persuade the citizens of the new republic about the meaning and purpose of their Constitution.


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