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The most common answer to this question is that John Marshall affirmed the right of judicial review over Congressional legislation; however, the Chief Justice contributed much more to the Judicial branch and the federal government, in general.


John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the United States (1801-1835), was arguably the most influential person in the history of the judiciary. A brilliant jurist with a genial personality, Marshall used both traits to position the Judiciary as a co-equal branch of the US government and to prevent states from eroding federal power after the Eleventh Amendment was ratified.

Marshall first eliminated the Supreme Court tradition of issuing per seriatim opinions, a practice where each justice issued his or her own legal justification for the Court's decision, and replaced it with a single opinion of the Court, usually written by Marshall himself. This allowed the Supreme Court to project unity and assert greater authority. It also allowed Marshall, who excelled at persuading others to his point of view, to devise political strategies that gave his opponents an immediate win that disguised Marshall's true goals. One famous example is that of Marbury v. Madison, (1803), one of the early cases of Marshall's 34-year tenure.

Immediately before leaving office, former President Adams appointed Marbury and 41 other members of his Federalist party to justice of the peace positions in the Washington, DC, area. The appointments were based on the lame duck Congress's passage of the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, which was signed into law only a few days before Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as President. John Marshall, who served as both Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States during Adams' last month in office, was responsible for recording, sealing and arranging delivery of the paperwork. Due to the last-minute nominations and Senate approval, the commissions weren't completed until late the night before Jefferson's inauguration and remained undelivered when the President took office.

Jefferson allegedly found the documents in new Secretary of State James Madison's office, and ensured a number of them never reached their intended recipients. Marbury, and three other men whose commissions were withheld, approached the Supreme Court requesting Marshall issue a writ of mandamus (a court order compelling an official to take action) demanding Madison deliver their commissions.

Marshall sent Madison a motion to show cause, requiring Madison respond with a legitimate reason why the Supreme Court shouldn't grant Marbury's request. Madison ignored the court order. This alerted Marshall to the strong possibility that ruling in Marbury's favor would result in a conflict between the Executive and Judicial branches that the Court was unlikely to win.

Marshall devised a brilliant solution. He ruled that Marbury and the other men were legally entitled to their commissions, and that the federal courts had jurisdiction over the matter. However, Marshall also ruled that the Supreme Court lacked original (trial) jurisdiction over the case because Congress had overstepped its authority Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 when they empowered the Supreme Court to issue writs of mandamus to government officials. Marshall declared that section of the Act unconstitutional, and told Marbury he would have to refile his case in District Court to receive satisfaction. [Marbury never refiled.]

Marbury v. Madison, (1803) represented the first time the US Supreme Court declared an Act of Congress unconstitutional, and clearly affirmed the right of judicial review, the Court's authority to evaluate laws in terms of constitutionality and nullify any they found unconstitutional. Judicial review is the Supreme Court's primary power, and the foundation upon which the Judicial branch rests.

Neither Jefferson nor Congress chose to fight Marshall over Marbury because the decision appeared to support their interests.

Chief Justice Marshall employed the strategy of granting a narrowly defined win to the more powerful party that had far-reaching implications not obvious on the surface. Marshall's belief in a "living constitution" resulted in frequent exercise of judicial activism supported by intricate legal theories that Thomas Jefferson called "twistifications."

Other decisions that strengthened the Court included those in cases like McCulloch v. Maryland, (1819), that prevented the State of Maryland from imposing an unfair tax on the federal Second National Bank, advancing the doctrine of implied powers, invoking the Article I Necessary and Proper Clause, and asserting the Article VI Supremacy Clause, elevating the authority of federal law over state law.

The Marshall Court also discouraged states from defying the federal government's authority by holding the Eleventh Amendment was no bar to the federal courts exercising appellate jurisdiction over state court decisions involving federal question jurisdiction; subordinated common law rule(laws based on court decisions) to statutory law; advanced the "complete diversity" principle that made it difficult for corporate shareholders to sue each other in federal courts; restrained the States from violating the terms of charters, and upheld Congress's right to regulate laws affecting interstate business under the Interstate Commerce Clause(Gibbons v. Ogden, (1824)), among other things.

Overall, the Marshall Court strengthened both the judiciary and the federal government by resolving issues of state sovereignty, Constitutional supremacy, legal jurisdiction, and separation of powers. In doing so, John Marshall successfully established the Judicial branch's power as a co-equal branch of government, and the Supreme Court as final arbiter of the US Constitution.

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Q: How did John Marshall strengthen the Judicial branch of the US government?
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Chief Justice John Marshall is primarily credited with strengthening the power of the Judicial Branch relative to the other two branches of government. He also empowered the Legislative Branch relative to the states (but the test answer is Judicial Branch).

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Jefferson thought the Bill of Rights would strengthen the judicial branch, because if there were a dispute that involved a persons rights, the Bill of Rights could prove their innocents.

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The Judicial Branch of government interprets and reviews laws passed by the legislature.

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