A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian claims that John Marshall got it spectacularly wrong: “It is emphatically the province and duty of the American people, not of the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court, to say what the Constitution is.”
The Supreme Court’s power and authority date from 1803’s Marbury v. Madison, which established it as the final arbiter of any conflict between the law and the Constitution. Burns (Leadership Scholar/Univ. of Maryland; Running Alone: Presidential Leadership from JFK to Bush II—Why It Has Failed and How We Can Fix It, 2006, etc.) departs from conventional wisdom and argues that Marbury’s enshrinement of the judiciary’s supremacy was actually an extra-Constitutional power grab by Chief Justice Marshall. Marbury immunized the court from checks and balances, made it unaccountable within our democracy and ensured deliberate efforts by the party in power to “pack” the court with its own partisans. In graceful prose, Burns takes us on a quick historical tour of many famous and infamous decisions, demonstrating how the court, frequently imagined as the protector of the weak and powerless, has more often been the friend of the powerful and a “a choke point for progressive reforms,” contemptuous of popular legislation. He comments on previous, unavailing efforts to curb the Court’s power—drives for impeachment, tinkering with the court’s numbers, popular votes on recall of decisions or of the Justices themselves, or fiddling with the rules, such as requiring a supermajority to strike down federal legislation. Astonishingly, Burns then proposes that President Obama, in an act of transformational leadership, announce his refusal to accept Supreme Court verdicts overruling vital legislation because the Constitution does not mention this power. Supporters of judicial supremacy, writes the author, should then be invited to amend the Constitution to explicitly provide for a power the court has never truly possessed. The author concedes the risk of this “open defiance of constitutional customs and the myths and mysteries that have long enshrouded the court…There might even be demands for impeachment.” No kidding.
Tendentious history in service of a reform bound to go nowhere.