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This Honorable Court

May 2024
2min read

The Supreme Court has become the most powerful judicial body in the world. In a new series under the editorship of Professor John A. Garraty , AMERICAN HERITAGE examines the crucial, often bitterly fought cases that have helped define the Court s unique role as a shaper of the nation’s history

The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” So begins Article III of the United States Constitution. This simple sentence provides the authorization for the entire structure of the federal judiciary. The Supreme Court, unique, prestigious, but controversial, is the crown of the system. Beyond question it is the best-known and most powerful judicial body in the world. Designed chiefly as a court to settle arguments between the states, matters involving foreign ambassadors, and other quarrels beyond the scope of state courts, it has from the time of John Marshall to that of Earl Warren added to its power by slow accretion, until today its influence is felt in every aspect of American life. Troops deploy, governmental agencies and great corporations dissolve, little children march past jeering mobs to school, because nine black-robed justices in Washington have discovered new meanings in an old and hallowed document.

Our Constitution has endured over the years because of its flexibility. The Founding Fathers knew better than to pin down their descendants too closely. Enduring principles rather than petty details were what they sought to establish in the long days of drafting at the Philadelphia convention. Moreover, they anticipated the need for future growth. They provided an orderly process for amending the Constitution, and they provided a Supreme Court to modify it when necessary by interpretation. But they did not expect that the Court would have so much to do with the growth and evolution of their handiwork—more, perhaps, than all the amendments taken together.

The Court has expanded and shaped the American government, through the influence of its decisions in specific cases that have come before it. The most important of these cases are well known to lawyers and historians. Even those who studied American history years ago will remember some of their names, although they may forget what it was that Marbury had against Madison, or why Dartmouth College was in trouble with the law. Trying to understand the modern Constitution without a knowledge of these landmarks would be like trying to comprehend Christianity without reading the Bible.

In the series that begins here, a number of historians will re-examine some of these cases from a new angle. To a remarkable degree, the element of chance has governed the evolution of the Constitution. The Court is powerless until some actual suit is brought to it for settlement. If Congress should abolish trial by jury, for example, nothing could be done about it until someone convicted without a jury trial went to court to obtain his rights. Such a person might be a great reformer unjustly persecuted, but he might just as well be a tramp convicted of robbing a henhouse. Constitutionally, it would not matter. Indeed, many trivial arguments begun by men concerned not at all with basic law have often resulted in decisions that have shaken the foundations of American society.

No doubt this is all strange and sometimes illogical. But it is part of American history, and a particularly absorbing part, because its fundamental elements are conflict, surprise, and human passion. The cast of characters in our dramas includes men of every sort—tycoons and black slaves, ferryboat captains, rebels, and, in the case of William Marbury, whose sad tale I examine in the following pages, a man who was only trying to get a job that had been promised him.

—J. A. G.

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