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In the wake of the recent controversy over the involvement of the United States Supreme Court in national politics, it is essential to remember an important date in American history. February 4, 2001, marks the formal bicentennial origins of the Marshall Court. For 200 years ago, on this day, John Marshall took the oath of office as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As perhaps the greatest of this country’s jurists, Marshall intuitively appreciated the importance of an independent judiciary in the preservation of a government of laws. Through the prescience of his constitutional adjudication and astute leadership Marshall helped transform the Court into a powerful and respected bastion of judicial review. Consequently, over the course of 34 years, with Marshall at the helm, the nation’s highest tribunal solidified its role as the ultimate arbiter of constitutional disputes and federal questions in our democratic republic. Marshall assumed the chief justiceship at a critical juncture in American history, when sectional divisions and the rise of national political parties threatened to tear the country asunder. Indeed, he began his tenure against the backdrop of the Revolution of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in an election ultimately decided by a single vote in the senate, and his Republican followers wrested control of Congress away from the Federalists. In the aftermath of this political turmoil, the independence of the Supreme Court appeared vulnerable, yet under the direction of its remarkable chief justice the Court steadfastly invoked the rule of law through the application of judicial review to the problems of a constitutional democracy. Ostensibly distinguishing between law and politics, the Marshall Court crafted a constitutional jurisprudence intended to protect property and contract rights from the ephemeral whims of transient democratic majorities and to preserve the essential nature of the federal system. In so doing, Marshall and his fellow justices secured the legitimacy of the Court and established the primacy of constitutional law despite the maelstrom of partisan antebellum politics. From this perspective, contemporary criticism of the Supreme Court underscores the constitutional legacy of the nation’s fourth chief justice. Accordingly, the Marshall Court’s enduring contribution may be the expectation it fostered in the power of judicial review to resolve questions of law in a constitutional democracy. In a country where legal issues often reflect political values, debate will forever persist over the limits of judicial authority. John Marshall perceived this as an attribute of American society and understood that the legitimacy of the Supreme Court emanated not only from its power to decide constitutional disputes but from the wisdom of its restraint. Therein lies both the promise and the responsibility of the Court in Marshall’s time and ours. Samuel R. Olken is a professor of constitutional law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

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