Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Right Angle Club 2012
This ends the ninetieth year for the club operating under the name of the Right Angle Club of Philadelphia. Before that, and for an unknown period, it was known as the Philadelphia Chapter of the Exchange Club.

Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.

..Constitution and Court
Forget all those lawyer jokes you hear. The American legal profession can rightly be proud of the Federal Court System, an achievement of the whole profession. America may be legalistic and overlawyered, but that reflects the rule of law dominated by lawyers. Curiously, the leader of this creation, John Marshall, was not so much a legal theoretician as a relentless Federalist lawyer, determined to reshape the legal profession to be worthy of power.

Chief Justice John Marshall Enters (Kettledrums and Crashing Cymbals)

{Chief Justice John Marshall}
Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall first took his seat at the opening of the new term, in Washington the new capital, on Wednesday, February 4, 1801. It was also at the end of Philadelphia's twenty-five-year reign as the center of the country, and twelve-year Federalist domination of national power, except for the Supreme Court. The Presidency, both houses of Congress, and the federal bureaucracy were in the hands of Jefferson's party. Only the dwindling life tenure of federal judges permitted some power to remain in the hands of Federalists for several more decades. John Adams the defeated Federalist President realized this very well and hastened to fill any remaining vacancies before he left the office. The Jeffersonian Republicans understood what was happening, resented it, and referred bitterly to the "Midnight Judges". We discuss the Marshall Court in some detail because it leads to the Andrew Jackson escapade in high finance, which ultimately merges with evolving financial history back in Philadelphia at the crashing termination of "Biddle's Bank".

Marshall was himself a Midnight Judge in the sense he was the retiring (Federalist) Secretary of State, immediately appointed by Adams to the duties of Chief Justice. He was himself the office of the Adams Administration who neglected to deliver the certificate of appointment of Justice of the Peace to Marbury, who promptly sued James Madison the incoming Secretary of State, to give him his signed and ratified certificate. Jefferson the incoming President of the United States, ordered Madison not to give it to Marbury. The behavior of all these high officials was unbecomingly petty since it was within the power of several of them to end the tangle in simple ways. To make matters still more infuriating, Jefferson delivered a beautiful, heart-warming First Inaugural Speech, full of forgiveness and invitation to compromise ("We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists"), which his own intransigence before, during and afterward transformed into a Federalist by-word for hypocrisy exceeding anything in Shakespeare. It's hard to say whether it makes these performances more or less bearable to learn that Marshall and Jefferson were first cousins. In any event, Marbury v. Madison was the first example of a Supreme Court ruling that a law was unconstitutional. The legal point on which this titanic Constitutional point rested, however, seems mostly a minor procedural error, leaving poor Marbury's problem as a footnote, Marshall's negligence uncriticised, Jefferson's interference unimpeached, and the whole nation's opinion of its governance sadly disappointed. On vivid display was the dominance of petty private grievances of our most venerated Founding Fathers, in an era when a public policy seemed most in need of getting the highest priority. In 1800, the confluence of names alone suggested crisis: Aaron Burr, Robespierre, Bonaparte, Hamilton. It was certainly a dramatic way for John Marshall to make an entrance on the public stage, but compared with the tie-vote election of 1800, and the Trial of Aaron Burr the Vice President for treason, it scarcely seemed worth public notice.

Within legal circles, professional achievements of Judges are ranked by a different standard which seems obscure to both the public and historians. Oliver Ellsworth, Marshall's immediate predecessor, nowadays seems most highly esteemed in the legal profession for revising the nature of judicial opinions. Prior to Ellsworth, the seven justices gave their opinions individually and serially. Ellsworth simplified this to majority and minority opinions of the entire court, with individual concurring opinions if insisted upon. The Chief Justice selects who will write the majority opinion, and generally writes it himself if he is in that majority. Effectively this makes the Chief Justice the voice of the court in important cases. Ellsworth retired for reasons of health before he got many advantages from this change, so the full force of Chief Justice power began to appear with the voice of Marshall. John Marshall then added his own twist, which was the obiter dictum .

Judges often make little speeches from the bench, which sometimes are on the public record. If they are directly related to the decision or opinion, they have some force as precedents to lower or later courts. In other circumstances obiter dicta have little consequence, but Marshall recognized there was a very big difference when an obiter issued from the pen of the Chief Justice of the United States, speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court. All Judges of every Federal Court and the Judges of State Courts in many situations are then on notice that the obiter is the opinion of that court to which all appeals could ultimately be made. It would be a brave judge who ignored this warning, and only a foolish lawyer would bring a case which flouted it. John Marshall had found a way to legislate what was effectively the Law of the Land, one without the possibility of a veto while he was still on the bench. He had not been made an Emperor, because the power of his dicta would depend on how combative he and fellow justices chose to be about it. But, looking ahead, Andrew Jackson would have been showing a profound lack of subtlety about the way things really are, had he issued his famous jibe that "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it." Jackson's most distinguished biographer Robert Remini maintains Jackson never said it, and prudently so.

Marshall was also prudent when he had to be, and acting as a Moses was careful to confine his Commandments to his mandate, which was the American law. Some of his obiter dicta might have been ignored as coming from the most powerful Federalist of his day, a former chief of the Virginia Federalist party, but with the passage of time several of these opinions have passed from statements of early Nineteenth century judicial policy into becoming the accepted American view of things. It is reasonably safe to say the following three dicta anticipate the coming of the Civil War, define its issues, and survived that war, reconfirmed:

The Federalist View of the Constitution. The Constitution is an ordinance of the people of the United States, and not a compact of States.

Enumerated powers. While the government which the Constitution established is one of the enumerated powers, as to those powers it is a sovereign government, both in its choice of the means by which to exercise its powers and in its supremacy over all colliding and antagonistic powers.

States Rights. The National Government and its instrumentalities are present within the States, not by the tolerance of the States, but by the supreme authority of the people of the United States.

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Article 1, section 10, clause 1 No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility. {bottom quote}
The Contract Clause

The Sanctity of Contracts. In a famous dialogue between James Madison and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Madison identified the erratic and high-handed behavior of state legislatures as one of the main reasons to convene the Constitutional Convention. He was describing a long list of behaviors which included reclaiming sales which had been regarded as permanent, reversing statutes, interfering with executions or other verdicts of courts, intervening in private controversies, calling for new hearings, introducing new rules of evidence after a trial had begun, and so forth. To a considerable degree, these abuses grew out of a collision between the undeniable right of a later legislature to change the rules which had been established by an earlier legislature, balanced against the disruptive effect of making any changes in rules, no matter how beneficial. For their part, the courts were in need of restraining themselves with doctrines like stare decisis , while reserving the right to make desirable changes in the law after serious consideration. They were also in need of establishing best practices and insisting they be followed, eventually evolving into the concept of due process , which eventually became Constitutional doctrine by the XIV Amendment. The legislative equivalent of these judicial principles was seen in laws passed after the crime had been committed ( ex post facto ), special legislation for one case an exception to general rules, and a wide variety of other unfair practices which had grown up. Accordingly, Article 1, section 10, clause 1 of the Constitution was written but often evaded in practice by sly legal tricks with Latin names. Examples of the broad principles might be stated in the constitution, but it required an experienced Judge to recognize the many evasions for what they were and organize a set of rules to implement the Constitutional principle. Marshall appointed himself in that role and systematically integrated his judicial counter-attack into a coherent code of moral conduct, bit by bit in obiter dicta.

We should let the French traveling correspondent, Alexis de Tocqueville, pass the final judgment on Marshall's effort:

"Scarcely any political question arises in the United States which is not resolved sooner, or later, into a judicial question. Hence all parties are obliged to borrow in their daily controversies the ideas, and even the language peculiar to judicial proceedings. . . The language of the law thus becomes, in some measure, a vulgar tongue; the spirit of law, which is produced in the schools and courts of justice, gradually penetrates beyond their walls into the bosom of society, where it descends to the lowest classes, so that at last the whole people contract the habits and the tastes of the judicial magistrate."

Originally published: Thursday, August 09, 2012; most-recently modified: Monday, July 22, 2019