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The Marshall Court

The Supreme Court became a powerful third branch of government largely through the 34 years of service of John Marshall. Marshall was chief justice from 1801, when the United States was still new, until 1835, when the country and its government were pretty grown up. In Chapter 9, you can find information about the establishment of judicial review with the Marbury v. Madison decision in 1803. Following are a few more key decisions from the Marshall era.

McCulloch v. Maryland: 1819

Maryland didn't much like the Bank of the United States doing business in its state, and so it decided to tax the bank out of existence. James McCulloch, the bank's cashier, refused to pay tax to Maryland because his bank was chartered by the United States government. Maryland said that it didn't see anything in the U.S. Constitution about a national bank and that the bank was therefore illegal and certainly couldn't hide behind the robes of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its 1819 decision, John Marshall's court held that the Constitution doesn't have to flat-out specify everything the government can do; Congress has implied powers for passing laws. After all, the Constitution says the U.S. government can do anything "necessary and proper" to carry out its specifically listed duties. In this case, the specific duties were to tax, borrow, and coin money.

McCulloch v. Maryland held for implied powers in 1819. If the Marshall court hadn't established implied powers, the federal government wouldn't be building roads or flying rockets because these and a thousand more activities are not specifically listed in the Constitution.

Cohens v. Virginia: 1821

Lotteries were big business even in the early days of the U.S. The Cohens were jailed for selling illegal lottery tickets, and they appealed their Virginia criminal conviction to the Supreme Court. The Marshall court heard the appeal and thus established the principle that state criminal decisions could be appealed to the federal Supreme Court. This allows mobsters to yell: "Mess with me, and I'll take you all the way to the Supreme Court!"

Gibbons v. Ogden: 1824

Gibbons v. Ogden held that the U.S. government has the right to regulate interstate commerce. Imagine if everybody in New York had to pay one person to get to New Jersey. Aaron Ogden had that kind of a deal with New York state; before the area had bridges, crossing the river meant taking Ogden's boat or swimming. The problem was that Thomas Gibbons had a license from the federal government for the same route. Ogden sued Gibbons, and the New York state court said that Ogden had the power to stop Gibbons. The federal Supreme Court overturned the state court's ruling, claiming that federal law is supreme, especially in interstate commerce (trade that crosses state lines).


You will see questions on Supreme Court decisions on the AP exam. Memorize the key decisions, which you can find in Chapter 23.


Question: What Supreme Court decision established the principle of federal regulation of interstate commerce?

Answer: Gibbons v. Ogden determined that the federal government had jurisdiction over trade that crossed state lines.

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