From John Marshall to John Roberts:  Giant Steps in U.S. Legal History

By Horace E. Johns

 Horace E. Johns is the ranking faculty member of Department of Accounting and Business Law at Middle Tennessee State University.  He was the former Director of the Business and Economic Research Center and Editor of Tennessee’s Business there.  He holds a B.A. and J.D. from Vanderbilt University, a M.B.A. from Syracuse University, and a M.A. and Ph.D from George Peabody College.  He has published numerous articles in business, law, education, and politics and currently is a columnist for Nashville Today.  Dr. Johns’ address is 3711 Richland Avenue, Nashville, TN 37205; his telephone number is 615-292-3030 and his email is


















From John Marshall to John Roberts:  Giant Steps in U.S. Legal History

By Horace E. Johns


1.     Marbury v. Madison (1803)[1]


A.    Historical Background

In many ways, President Thomas Jefferson was hamstrung by the federal courts during the early years of the new republic.  John Marshall was one of Jefferson’s predecessor’s, John Adams, last appointments.  Marshall successfully curtailed application of Jefferson’s “revolution of 1800” through court decisions.[2]

If there is anything Americans take for granted, it is that the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether a law is constitutional.  In other words, the principle of judicial review has become a critical cog in the system of checks and balances, thereby preventing the United States from evolving into a dictatorship.  However, before this landmark case, the principle was not established.[3]


[1] 5 US 137 (1803); Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of a 4-0 decision.

[2] Allen C. Guelzo et al, The History of the United States 2nd ed., The Great Courses, p. 50.

[3] Morin Bishop et al, The United States Supreme Court, Centennial Media – Publisher, at 19.

“Marbury v. Madison”.  Oyez, US 137.  Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.