Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall joined the U.S. Supreme Court on February 4, 1801, replacing Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth. Marshall was born on September 24, 1755 in northern Virginia. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After leaving the army, Marshall studied law at the College of William and Mary and was admitted to the bar in 1780.

Marshall then launched his political career by serving in the Virginia legislature for various periods over the next two decades. He also played a role in the 1788 convention at which Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution. As his legal reputation grew, Marshall argued (unsuccessfully) before the U.S. Supreme Court in the key case of Ware v. Hylton in 1796. Shortly afterward, he participated in a diplomatic mission to France. In 1799, Marshall joined the U.S. House of Representatives. President John Adams appointed him as U.S. Secretary of State a year later. However, Marshall stayed in that role for less than a year.

On January 20, 1801, Adams nominated Marshall for the Chief Justice seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on January 27, and he took the judicial oath about a week later. Marshall remains the longest-tenured Chief Justice in the history of the Court, serving there for 34 years.

Probably the most famous opinion penned by Marshall came just two years after he joined the Court. In Marbury v. Madison, he asserted the doctrine of judicial review, which allows the Court to strike down a law or government action that violates the Constitution. This helped put the Court on a more equal footing with the other branches of government. Marshall also bolstered the power of the Court in Cohens v. Virginia, ruling that it could review decisions by state courts in criminal cases that implicated the Constitution.

As his tenure progressed, Marshall authored notable decisions that strengthened the federal government. His interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution in McCulloch v. Maryland gave Congress wide latitude in exercising its powers. In Gibbons v. Ogden, Marshall took a similarly broad view of federal power under the Commerce Clause.

Marshall also wrote for the Court in its first famous case involving property rights, which is still taught in law schools across America. He ruled in Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh that Native Americans could not transfer title to land, since they were only occupants rather than owners. Another of his decisions on property law has not stood the test of time, though. In Barron v. Baltimore, Marshall wrote that the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states. Over time, the Court has incorporated almost all of these protections against state governments.

In addition to his impact on the law, Marshall shaped the way in which Supreme Court decisions are structured. Before his tenure, the Justices generally wrote seriatim opinions, which meant that each Justice explained his view of the case separately. This could lead to uncertainty over the legal principle for which a decision stood. To improve clarity, Marshall persuaded his colleagues to issue a single "opinion of the Court" that spoke for the Justices in the majority as a group. This remains the format of most Supreme Court decisions today.

Marshall died on July 6, 1835 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was buried in Richmond, Virginia. Chief Justice Roger Taney replaced him on the Court.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Marshall:

Strawbridge v. Curtiss (1806)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

If there are two or more joint plaintiffs and two or more joint defendants, each of the plaintiffs must be capable of suing each of the defendants in federal courts for diversity jurisdiction.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Topic: Role of Courts

It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. If courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the Constitution rather than such ordinary act must govern the case to which they both apply. A law repugnant to the Constitution is void.

U.S. v. Percheman (1832)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

Private property generally should not be confiscated and private rights annulled on a change in the sovereignty of a territory.

Barron v. Baltimore (1833)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

The provision in the Fifth Amendment declaring that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation is intended solely as a limitation on the exercise of power by the federal government, and is not applicable to the legislation of the states. (This decision was essentially overruled by later cases.)

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

Topic: Powers of Congress

The power to regulate commerce does not stop at the external boundary of a state, although it does not extend to commerce that is completely internal.

Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. McIntosh (1823)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

Native American inhabitants are to be considered merely occupants, to be protected while in peace in the possession of their lands, but deemed incapable of transferring absolute title to others.

Cohens v. Virginia (1821)

Topic: Role of Courts

A case arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States is cognizable in the Courts of the Union, whoever may be the parties to that case.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

Topic: Powers of Congress

Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means that are appropriate, that are plainly adapted to that end, that are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.

Fletcher v. Peck (1810)

Topic: Role of Courts

The question of whether a law is void for its repugnancy to the Constitution is a question of much delicacy, which ought seldom to be decided in the affirmative in a doubtful case. The opposition between the Constitution and the law should be such that the judge feels a clear and strong conviction of their incompatibility with each other.