Why we study landmark judicial decisions

The yearlong commitment of this column to the exploration of the Constitution has focused, primarily, on historical explanations of the aims and purposes of delegates to the Constitutional Convention. On occasion, we have illuminated constitutional controversies surrounding current governmental acts through this historical lens, a method which largely avoids charges of partisanship, and leaves disappointed readers to quarrel, not so much with this author, as with James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and others who wrote the Constitution.

An adequate grounding in the historical foundations of the Constitution and first principles, as espoused by the framers, is essential to civic education. But there is more, of course, to achieving civic literacy. Of necessity, we need better acquaintance with key Supreme Court rulings — landmark decisions — that have resolved historic debates and shaped the meaning of constitutional provisions.

Citizens study landmark cases — those of great legal and historical significance — to better understand those rulings that have shaped, in an enduring manner, the meaning of the Constitution. Landmark rulings may unveil first impressions of constitutional principles and provisions. They introduce new precedents, tests and standards that will guide the Court’s reasoning for years to come. They often mark substantial changes in the interpretation of the Constitution. These decisions consequently have profound implications for the doctrines of separation of powers, checks and balances and the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans. As students of the Constitution, we thus study landmark opinions to understand their impact on our daily lives, and the life of the nation.

The exploration of landmark cases reveals much about the work of the judiciary, what Hamilton referred to in Federalist No. 78, as “the least dangerous branch.” It informs our understanding of the Justices’ various methods of constitutional interpretation, their conception of the role and importance of precedents, how they conceive of the job of judging, their approach to the exercise of judicial power and the assertion of judicial review, as well as their perspectives on writing majority, concurring and dissenting opinions. At bottom, landmark rulings shape the face of our Constitution. Study of landmark opinions will provide insights into those judicial architects of the supreme law of the land.

In the weeks and months ahead, we will explore landmark rulings on fundamental principles that have shaped our constitutional trajectory. Our study will traverse the length and breadth of the Constitution, including pivotal cases on the powers of government and the liberties of the people, from First Amendment freedoms encompassing speech, religion and the press to 14th Amendment provisions affecting equal protection and due process. We will review and analyze, among other landmark cases, the Court’s treatment of presidential powers, the scope of congressional powers and the metes and bounds of federal v. state authority that form the disputes at the heart of federalism.

Our exploration begins, as many college and law school courses on constitutional law begin, with a study of Marbury v. Madison (1803), certainly the most celebrated judicial opinion in American history. The Court’s decision, the greybeard of all precedents, represents the first time that the Supreme Court exercised the power of judicial review, its awesome authority to strike down congressional statutes in conflict with the Constitution. This case, caught in the crossfire of disputes between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians, at a juncture when the country has rejected the policies and politics of John Adams and embraced Thomas Jefferson’s vision and leadership. It produces a resolution of issues involving presidential and judicial power, and declarations about the source and scope of judicial authority in constitutional interpretation formulated in Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous statement that, “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is.” Marshall’s announcement will provide the foundation for future landmark decisions about judicial authority to resolve matters of segregation and presidential power.

Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion also gives rise to charges of judicial usurpation and the source of the Court’s authority to assert judicial review. Our review and exploration of Marbury v. Madison, the history that it unleashed, begins next week.