25th Sep 2020

Current Controversy – Ginsburg Seat

One of the biggest stories in America right now in the fall of 2020 is the empty seat on the Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday, September 18, 2020. This sparked a heated national debate about when and how this seat would be filled – in light of the upcoming presidential election in November.

Historical Controversy – Adams v. Jefferson

If you lived in America in early 1801, there was also a heated debate about judicial appointments late in the term of the second President, John Adams.

The first President, George Washington did not associate with a political party during his two terms (1789-1797). The second President, John Adams, who only served one term (1797-1801) was a member of the Federalist party. The third President, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), was a member of the Democratic-Republican party.

Adams defeated Jefferson in the 1796 election. Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 election. On February 17, 1801 the U.S. House of Representatives elected Jefferson President, breaking a tie in the Electoral College. (It seems close, bitter elections are not just a modern thing!)

Late Appointment of Judges

Adams began to appoint Judges, and Congress confirmed and installed them. (Interestingly the same Congress that just elected Jefferson over Adams. Although the Senate confirmed and the House elected. Still an interesting dynamic, to say the least.)

Adams appointed William Marbury, for instance, to a judicial role called justice of the peace for District of Columbia on March 2, 1801, the second-to-last day of Adams’ term. The Senate confirmed Marbury (and others) on March 3, 1801, the last day of Adams’ term. Adams signed commissions, and then Secretary of State John Marshall signed and sealed them. But it was not clear if they were all done that day. Marshall continued on as Secretary under Jefferson for a time, at Jefferson’s request.

The new President, Thomas Jefferson, refused to recognize the appointments. Gerald Gunther and Kathleen M. Sullivan, Constitutional Law, Thirteenth Edition, 11 (1997).

Famous Case

This dispute led to one of the most famous Supreme Court cases in U.S. History: Marbury v. Madison. Then Chief Justice John Marshall would write the opinion, setting out one of the most foundational and controversial Supreme Court principles: judicial review.

Future blog posts will dig a bit more into these issues.

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