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Profile: John Marshall
John Marshall was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Supreme Court rules in United States v. Curtiss-Wright, a case revolving around Curtiss-Wright’s illicit sale of machine guns to Bolivia in violation of a joint resolution passed by Congress. The Court finds that Congress did not cede undue powers to the president in the resolution, and that the president has a wide array of powers in the area of foreign policy making that he does not have in the domestic arena. Justice George Sutherland, who writes the majority opinion, notes the distinctions between foreign and internal affairs, arguing that because “the president alone has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation,” Congress may provide the president with a special degree of discretion in external matters which would not be afforded domestically. In an aside to the decision, Sutherland notes what he calls the “plenary and exclusive power of the president as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” a power which, if correctly cited, gives the executive branch sole authority to conduct foreign relations in everything from treaties and trade agreements to launching and conducting wars. However, Sutherland’s statement is written as an adjunct to the majority opinion, or dicta, and therefore has no legal stature. In later examinations of Sutherland’s work, many legal scholars will determine that Sutherland is misquoting his original source, the Supreme Court’s first Chief Justice, John Marshall, who as a House member argued that the president has the duty to carry out the nation’s treaty obligations and is the exclusive channel for diplomatic communications. Marshall did not argue that the legislative or judicial branches had no authority over foreign policy, and never espoused that argument once ascending to the high court. Many advocates of the so-called “unitary executive theory” of presidential power will cite Sutherland’s erroneous dicta in making their own arguments for untrammeled presidential power. [Savage, 2007, pp. 141; Oyez (.org), 6/2007]
Researching the legal and technical aspects of presidential pardons (see August 30, 1974), Benton Becker, President Ford’s lawyer, finds that they only apply to federal crimes, meaning, for example, that Richard Nixon can still be prosecuted for crimes in California arising from his connections to the Ellsberg burglary (see September 9, 1971). It would not affect a Senate impeachment trial, even though the possibility of that happening is increasingly remote. Becker finds two legal references of particular use in his research: the 1915 Supreme Court case of United States v. Burdick, which attempted to answer the fundamental question of the meaning of a presidential pardon; and an 1833 quote from the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, who wrote, “A pardon is an act of grace… which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.” Becker determines that such an “act of grace” is an implicit admission of guilt. Unlike the proposed conditional amnesty for draft evaders (see August 31, 1974), a pardon will strike convictions from the books and exempt those pardoned from any responsibility for answering for their crimes, but it does not forget (in a legal sense) that those crimes took place. “The pardon is an act of forgiveness,” Becker explains. “We are forgiving you—the president, the executive, the king—is forgiving you for what you’ve done, your illegal act that you’ve either been convicted of, or that you’ve been accused of, or that you’re being investigated for, or that you’re on trial for. And you don’t have to accept this—you can refuse this.” The Burdick decision convinces Becker that by pardoning Nixon, Ford can stop his imminent prosecution, and undoubted conviction, without having to condone Nixon’s crimes. For Nixon to accept a pardon would be, in a legal sense, an admission of criminal wrongdoing. [Werth, 2006, pp. 263-265]
Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (see September 26, 1986), 80, dies after a ten-month battle with thyroid cancer. He will be replaced by John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), who formerly clerked for him. Rehnquist’s term as Chief Justice marked a “sea change” in the direction of the Court. Former Clinton solicitor general Walter Dellinger says: “It is quite clear that there are three dominant chief justices of American history, and they are John Marshall, Earl Warren, and William H. Rehnquist. I think that there’s just no question that he’s of enormous historical importance.” Conservative law professor and former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, says that Rehnquist presided over a “sea change” in the Court, taking it sharply to the right. [National Public Radio, 7/20/2005; Legal Times, 9/5/2005; Dean, 2007, pp. 129-137]
Brooke Obie of the Constitutional Accountability Center attacks a recent statement of position by Connecticut attorney general candidate Martha Dean, who advocates the concept of “nullification”—the idea that states can ignore or override federal laws if they so choose (see October 14, 2010). Obie says Dean’s position is a “dangerous” claim that ignores the fundamental precepts of the US Constitution and every relevant court decision since before the Civil War. Articles III and VI of the Constitution explicitly place federal law over states’ laws, and place the Supreme Court firmly in the position of being the final arbiter of whether a federal law is unconstitutional. “It is disturbing that Dean, seeking office as a state’s chief lawyer, said in the interview that she does not ‘accept’ that the Supreme Court has this authority,” Obie writes, and refers Dean to the first Chief Justice, John Marshall, who wrote that “[i]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Nullification is “completely unconstitutional,” Obie writes, and has been used to bring about “some of the most divisive moments in our history: from the attempted destruction of our great nation by secessionists in the 19th century, to the dividing of people by segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s. Encouraging such backsliding of America into its darkest days is an extremely dangerous position for anyone to take, let alone someone seeking to become a state attorney general.” [Constitutional Accountability Center, 10/14/2010] In the comments section of Obie’s article, Dean reprints a post from Thomas Woods that Woods posted on his blog in response to Obie. Woods is a pro-Confederate segregationist. Woods calls Obie’s work a “fifth-grade research paper masquerading as a critique of Martha Dean,” and goes on to say that “[a]lmost every single sentence in this post is wrong. Your view of the Supremacy Clause is wrong, your view of Article III is grotesquely wrong, your summary of the history of nullification is absurd, and your comment about secessionists makes no sense. South Carolina was complaining that the NORTH was nullifying too much. Talk about getting the history exactly backwards!” He compares Obie’s views to “progressives,” neoconservatives, and Adolf Hitler. Think Progress’s legal expert Ian Millhiser later notes that Woods is a co-founder of the neo-Confederate League of the South, and has called the Civil War a battle between “atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other,” contending that the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 was “[t]he real watershed from which we can trace many of the destructive trends that continue to ravage our civilization today.” Dean has cited Woods before, in one debate reading aloud from his book in support of nullification. Woods is a prolific contributor to the far-right Tenth Amendment Center, a pro-nullification group which pushes political candidates to sign a pledge promising to nullify federal laws such as Social Security and Medicare which do not comply with their “tenther” view of the Constitution. [Constitutional Accountability Center, 10/14/2010; Think Progress, 10/19/2010]
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