Digital History

The Jeffersonian Era

War on the Judiciary Previous Next
Digital History ID 2982



When Thomas Jefferson took office, not a single Republican served as a federal judge. He feared that the Federalists intended to use the courts to frustrate Republican plans.

The first goal of his presidency was to weaken Federalist control of the federal judiciary. The specific issue that provoked his anger was the Judiciary Act of 1801, which was passed by the lame-duck Federalist-dominated Congress five days before Adams's term expired. The law created 16 new federal judgeships, positions which President Adams promptly filled with Federalists. The act reduced the number of Supreme Court justices effective with the next vacancy, delaying Jefferson's opportunity to name a new Supreme Court justice.

Jefferson's supporters in Congress repealed the Judiciary Act. William Marbury, who had been appointed to a judgeship by President Adams during his last hours of office, filed suit. Marbury asked the Supreme Court to order the Jefferson administration to give him a formal letter of appointment.

The case threatened a direct confrontation between the judiciary and the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. If the Supreme Court ordered Madison to give Marbury his judgeship, the Jefferson administration was likely to ignore the court.

John Marshall, the new chief justice of the Supreme Court, was well aware of the court's predicament. When Marshall became the nation's fourth chief justice in 1801, the Supreme Court lacked prestige and public respect. Presidents found it difficult to find willing candidates to serve as justices. The Court was considered so insignificant that it held its sessions in a clerk's office in the basement of the Capitol and only met six weeks a year.

In his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, the chief justice ingeniously expanded the court's power without directly provoking the Jeffersonians. Marshall conceded that Marbury had a right to his appointment but ruled the Court had no authority to order the Jefferson administration to act, since the section of the Judiciary Act that gave the Court the power to issue an order was unconstitutional. For the first time, the Supreme Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

Marbury v. Madison was a landmark in American constitutional history. The decision established the power of the federal courts to review the constitutionality of federal laws and to invalidate acts of Congress when they are determined to conflict with the Constitution. This power, known as judicial review, provides the basis for the important place that the Supreme Court occupies in American life today.

In fact, the Supreme Court did not invalidate another act of Congress for half a century. Chief Justice Marshall recognized that the judiciary was the weakest of the three branches of government, and in the future the high court refrained from rulings in advance of national sentiment.

Marshall's decision in Marbury v. Madison intensified Republican party distrust of the courts. Impeachment, Jefferson believed, was the only way to make the courts responsive to the public will. Federalists responded by accusing the administration of endangering the independence of the federal judiciary.

Three weeks before the court handed down its decision in Marbury v. Madison, the Republican-controlled Congress impeached and removed from office a federal district court judge, John Pickering, who was an alcoholic and may have been insane.

On the day of Pickering's conviction, the House voted to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who had accused the Jeffersonians of being atheists. Chase was put on trial for holding opinions "hurtful to the welfare of the country." The Constitution specified that a judge could only be removed from office for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes," and in a historic decision that helped to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, the Senate voted to acquit Chase. "Impeachment is a farce which will not be tried again," Jefferson announced.

Since Chase's acquittal, no further attempts have been made to reshape the federal courts through impeachment. Despite the Republicans' active hostility toward an independent judiciary, the Supreme Court had emerged as a vigorous third branch of government.

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