“We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution.”
– Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes
Celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department,” Chief John Marshall wrote in Marbury v. Madison, “to say what the law is.” The U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t always the powerhouse it is today. In Federalist #78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Judiciary threatens the rights included in the Constitution less than the Legislative or the Executive branches do. The Supreme Court didn’t even decide a case until two years after its founding. During the entire tenure of its first chief justice, John Jay, the court only heard four cases.
But things changed dramatically in 1801 when President John Adams appointed John Marshall the chief justice, who established the Judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. During his 34 years as chief justice, the Marshall Court rendered more than 1,000 decisions, 519 of which Marshall wrote himself. Among these famous Marshall Court decisions Marbury v. Madison (1803), Fletcher v. Peck (1810), and McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) were ones establishing the principle of judicial review of presidential and congressional actions and the doctrine of federal supremacy.
By the 20th century, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that put an end to state-sponsored segregation. In a unanimous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, the Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Bush v. Gore (2000) case best demonstrated the court’s expanding powers. In a 5-4 ruling, the vote of a single justice essentially determined who would be the president for more than 280 million people.
Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s vast power, average Americans and schoolchildren alike know far less about its workings than they do about the president or Congress. The troubled state of K-12 U.S. history and civics education only exacerbates the problem. To remedy this, we’re offering a variety of resources (including our recent segment of The Learning Curve podcast) to help parents, teachers, high schoolers, and even college students: