Important Early Supreme Court Cases

The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch of the U.S. government and was established by the United States Constitution in 1789. The job of The Supreme Court is to interpret laws and decide if they are Constitutional. In its early years The Supreme Court had one Chief justice (judge) and five associate justices but today the number of associate justices has increased to eight.

Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the President of the United States and serve on the court for life. In its beginnings, the supreme court’s powers were relatively weak compared to the other branches of government. However, as the court became more established, several landmark cases defined the court’s role and powers within the U.S. government.

John Marshall served as the fourth Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835. Marshall remains the longest-serving chief justice and is widely regarded as one of the most influential justices to ever sit on the Supreme Court.The decisions of his court were some of the most influential in the Court’s history.  

In the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, outgoing President John Adams nominated as many federal judges as he could under the Judiciary Act of 1801. Incoming President Thomas Jefferson ordered the notices of appointment to not be delivered. Eventually, the Supreme Court needed to decide whether or not the Judiciary Act of 1789 was illegal because it gave powers to the judicial branch that were not granted by the Constitution.  

The importance of this case was that it was the first time a law was determined unconstitutional and gave the court the power to overrule any government action that violated the Constitution. This further established that the Constitution is the law of the land.

Another important case was McCulloch v. Maryland. In 1816, Congress created The Second Bank of the United States in Baltimore, Maryland to control the currency of the United States. Many states did not agree with this. The state of Maryland decided to pass a law that taxed all banks not created by the state. The director of the Second Bank, James McColluch, refused to pay the tax. The state of Maryland then sued McColluch. Eventually the case was taken to the Supreme Court in 1819 and the court ruled in favor of McCulloch. This case was important because it helped to define that within the Necessary and Proper Clause, there are “implied powers” in the Constitution given to the federal government. The doctrine of implied powers would be used many times throughout the history of the Supreme Court.

A third important case in early Supreme Court history is that of Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824. In this case the state of New York granted Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston exclusive rights to navigate steam boats up and down the waterways in New York State. Assron Ogden paid Livingston a fee, allowing Ogden a share in the monopoly. Thomas Gibbons ignored this monopoly and began running his own steamships. Ogden convinced a New York state court to prevent Gibbons from running his ships, and Gibbons responded by suing Ogden. This case reiterated the power of the federal government with the Commerce Clause in the Constitution. Because the steamboats were traveling between states, this allowed the federal government to regulate interstate commerce thus invalidating the monopoly set up by the state of New York.