The Marshall Court

John Marshall Becomes Chief Justice

Marshall joined a court composed entirely of Federalists.  He hoped he could convert them from a small band of individual judges into an entity that spoke, whenever possible, with the authoritative voice of a unified court.  His first priority was to develop the sense of collegiality and camaraderie that would lead in that direction. He quickly arranged to have all six justices live together at the same boarding house whenever the court was in session.  That practice continued throughout Marshall’s long tenure, during which time he served with fifteen associate justices.  The justices would return to the boarding house after oral argument, where they would discuss cases over meals and in their leisure time. Their discussions often were accompanied by wine, which Marshall had sent to the boarding house each term.  Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife that the justices were such ascetics that they imbibed only when it was raining.  He added: 

It does sometimes happen that the Chief Justice will say to me when the cloth is removed: Brother Story, step to the window and see if it does not look like rain.’ And If I tell him that the sun is shining. Chief Justice Marshall will sometimes reply: “All the better, for our Jurisdiction extends over so large a territory that the doctrine of chances makes it certain that it must be raining somewhere!”

According to Justice Story, Marshall minimized other social activities when the court was in session so that the justices could focus on their work. His affable personality and sense of humor, combined with his intellectual tenacity, apparently had their desired effect. 

The Marshall Court’s First Case

Talbot v. Seeman (1801)

 The first case decided under Marshall’s leadership marked an important change in the manner in which the court announced its opinions and worked as a court.

The case involved a merchant ship owned by Hans Frederick Seeman, a German national.  Seeman’s ship had been captured on the high seas by the French during the Franco-American conflict of 1798-1800.  The ship was recaptured by the USS Constitution, under the command of Captain Silas Talbot. Talbot escorted the ship to a New York harbor and claimed salvage rights over the captured vessel. Seeman challenged the legality of the capture and Talbot’s right to salvage.  The case raised several complex legal issues.  Nonetheless, on August 11, 1801, only four days after oral argument, the court issued its opinion.  It held that Talbot had the right to salvage the vessel, but it reduced greatly the value of his salvage claim, and it allowed Seeman to deduct his costs from the reduced amount. 

Talbot v. Seeman is not a famous case in Supreme Court history, but it foretold two important developments.  The first was the speed with which the Court decided the case. The second was the caption that introduced the decision:  “MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.”  The tradition of announcing all of the court’s opinions seriatim was at an end.  Talbot ushered in a new era for the Supreme Court.       

The “Opinion of the Court”

Apparently it was by force of personality that Marshall persuaded the justices to abandon the practice of writing seriatim opinions. The “opinion of the court” approach meant that the third branch, not a variety of individual justices, had put its stamp on the legal outcome in a case.  The opinion of the court approach also allowed the court to identify the broader legal principles that provided the framework for its decisions. Subsequent cases would be decided in the light of those principles.  If the principles were considered no longer sound, then the court would need to explain its reasoning for abandoning them and explain why it was adopting new or different principles. The accumulation of legal principles in turn created doctrines that served as roadmaps for understanding and predicting how the court most likely would rule in particular cases.  If opinions of the court were to be unanimous, then the justices would have to engage intellectually with one another.  They would need to debate, persuade, and even compromise to achieve a result that satisfied them all.  Seriatim opinions did not require such a collegial approach to decision-making. 

Quick and Accurate Opinions

Not everyone applauded the abandonment of seriatim opinions.  President Jefferson was one who did not.  He believed that the seriatim form of announcing opinions resulted in greater individual accountability and transparency, and they showed that each judge had considered the case and understood it.  Perhaps most important, Jefferson believed that it was easier to overrule or ignore seriatim opinions than opinions of the court.  The opinion of the court method of announcing decisions marked an important step in the development of the Supreme Court as an institution.  

By the time Joseph Story joined the Supreme Court in 1811, it was a very different institution than when Marshall began his career there a decade earlier.  Story wrote:

[We] live in the most frank and unaffected intimacy . . . united as one, with a mutual esteem which makes even the labors of jurisprudence light . . . we moot every question as we proceed, and familiar conferences at our lodgings often come to a very quick and, I trust, a very accurate opinion, in a few hours.