An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't.
- Anatole France (1844-1924)
Today is Friday - February 24th, 2017
On This Day In History:
1803 - Marbury v. Madison - The landmark case that declared the Supreme Court as the final interpreter of constitutional issues.
Today, February 24th, marks the anniversary of an extraordinary legal event, the Supreme Court's opinion in the case of Marbury v. Madison. Chief Justice John Marshall announced the ruling that the Supreme Court was not bound by an act of Congress that was "repugnant to the Constitution."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist has described Marbury as "the most famous case ever decided by the United States Supreme Court." But, at the time it was issued, neither Marshall nor his chief adversary (and cousin), Thomas Jefferson, could have imagined the further growth and acceptance of the power of judicial review that Marbury declared.
The formal dispute that the case resolved was itself of minor significance. It was an issue of political patronage, pitting the ascendant Jeffersonians against the (soon-to-be) departing Federalists. The simmering feud between them was intense. The case can only be understood against the background of the election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent president, John Adams, and his Democrat-Republican party also gained control of the Congress.
The Federalists still controlled the government until March 4, 1801. Adams appointed John Marshall as Secretary of State, and then appointed him also as Chief Justice of the United States when that position became vacant. The Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created circuit courts of appeal much like they are today, and relieved the justices of the Supreme Court of their obligation to "ride circuit." It also increased the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Adams immediately appointed 16 new judges to these courts--all Federalists--and all were confirmed by the Senate.
On February 27, 1801, just days before Jefferson was to take office, Congress passed another bill. The Justice of the Peace Act provided Adams with the opportunity to appoint 42 justices of the peace to five-year terms in Washington and Alexandria. Most of Adams's nominations went to deserving Federalists, and all were confirmed by the Senate. William Marbury was one of those appointed.
The judicial commissions were signed by Adams, and the seal of the United States affixed, on March 3rd. These were known as the "Midnight Judges." John Marshall, as Secretary of State, was responsible for delivering the commissions. Historians differ on whether none or some of the commissions were delivered. But of those not delivered, one belonged to Marbury. Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the commissions. Marbury and several others brought a lawsuit to compel Madison to deliver their commissions.
Virtually all constitutional law courses in America's colleges and law schools begin with the Marbury case. Despite its archaic language, Marbury comes alive for students. They respond to its intrigue and machinations, to Marshall's epic confrontation with Jefferson, to his disputed rationale for recognition of the power of judicial review, and his skillful manipulation of institutional strength and weakness. In all of these, they recognize the blueprint of a hybrid legal/political Supreme Court in the making. The full realization of Marbury, thus, is largely a product of the 20th century.
Marshall's decision in this case has been hailed as a judicial tour de force. In essence, he declared that Madison should have delivered the commission to Marbury, but then held that the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that gave the Supreme Court the power to issue writs of mandamus exceeded the authority allotted the Court under Article III of the Constitution, and was therefore null and void. Thus he was able to chastise the Jeffersonians and yet not create a situation in which a court order would be flouted.
The critical importance of Marbury is the assumption of several powers by the Supreme Court. One was the authority to declare acts of Congress, and by implication acts of the president, unconstitutional if they exceeded the powers granted by the Constitution. But even more important, the Court became the arbiter of the Constitution, the final authority on what the document meant. As such, the Supreme Court became in fact as well as in theory an equal partner in government, and it has played that role ever since.
The bottom line is that Marbury v. Madison, with all its imperfections and contradictions, continues to warrant our attention.
It created a model of judicial independence. It established the fundamental architecture of constitutional review. It planted the seed for the political questions doctrine, and enriched the separation of power principle through Marshall's emphasis on the distinction between ministerial acts - which judges could review - and discretionary political acts which it could or should not. And it perennially compels us to think about the evolving nature of democratic governance.
A final legacy of Marbury is particularly trenchant today. Marshall's efforts to protect the Court by avoiding a major brawl with Jefferson have been replayed time and again, as the Supreme Court has deferred to the President in reviewing his authority, particularly in times of war and emergency. Marshall let Jefferson off the hook; to hold him to strict accounts would have been too risky, both for Marshall himself (he regarded contemporary efforts to impeach him as serious), and for the Court itself. The Warren Court refused to confront Presidents Johnson and Nixon on the legality of the war in Vietnam. Will the Supreme Court, when asked to make a constitutional assessment of the "war on terrorism," do the same for George W. Bush and John Ashcroft?
Celebrating Birthdays Today:
What Happened on Your Special Day?
I became a fan of "today in history" information when I was very young. My father had a calendar that he had put together of "reasons to celebrate". If anybody asked "what are we celebrating?" my father could check his book and come up with a reason to celebrate for any day of the year. Charlie Chaplin's birthday, Buster Keaton's birthday, the anniversary of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, for every day of the year, my father's calendar had some interesting historical event that had occurred.
With this page I have tried to continue the tradition. Generally, I prefer to include birthdays and anniversaries of positive, uplifting, life affirming people and events that have had particular significance in my life. It's here because it was important to me.
I am trying to continually update with links from stories to other relevant sites. Check back regularly for a story on something interesting that happened on this day in history.
There are many, many, sites out there that have a lot of "this day in history" information. Many are not so great, full of inaccurate information and "negative vibes". However, there are a few that are really fabulous. Here are links to a few of my favorites. These sites feature "Today in History" stories for today, and some include archives that will enable you to look up information for any other date in history that is special to you:
This Day in History
The History Channel tells you what happened in Automotive, Civil War, Cold War, Crime, Entertainment, General Interest, Literary, Old West, Vietnam War, Wall Street, and World War II history for today or any day.
Life Magazine Covers
Life offers a look at covers from this day in history.
New York Times: On This Day
Lists events which occurred on each month and day of the year throughout history. Links to New York Times articles on the events when available.
Today in History
Stories and pictures from the American Memory historical collections of the U.S. Library of Congress.
The Internet Movie Database
The Internet Movie Database claims itself to be the biggest, best, most award-winning movie site on the planet. I'm not sure if it really is, but it is huge and has TONS of info on even the most obscure films, movies stars, directors, producers, etc. If it is motion picture related, you can probably find out something about it at this site.