In 1801, Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican (by contemporary perceptions, a political hermaphrodite) defeated sitting president John Adams, a Federalist, Jefferson thus becoming the third President of the United States.
Are you with me? It’s going to be interesting. I promise.
Since Adams (a New Englander) and Jefferson (a Virginian, suh!) agreed politically on very little, Adams knew that when Jefferson took office, he would undo – keeping it simple – all the stuff Adams and his Federalist-controlled Congress had previously enacted. Adams feared Jefferson, in the vernacular, would administratively stink up the place.
Now then, as today, there is this “lame duck” period to their tenure, in which outgoing presidents remain in charge until the new president is sworn in. Seeing it as his patriotic responsibility, Adams took advantage of that “lame duck” period to stymie the incoming “opposition”, making last-minute appointments of dozens of Federalist judges who, in their decisions – judges being impartial but not that impartial – would perpetuate the Federalist philosophy.
Take that, Tommy Jefferson!
Okay, so there were these things called “commissions”, appointments to federal offices, which, once received, made you the thing that commission commissioned you to become.
So here’s what he did. Before losing his presidential authority, Adams signed a boatload of judicial commissions to Federalist partisans, instructing them to be delivered forthwith.
Unfortunately, “forthwith” was not as fast as Adams had hoped. The clock ran out on his presidency before all the commissions reached their appointed destinations.
So there’s this guy Marbury, pre-informed that he is getting a commission to be Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia, and he’s sitting at home and it’s like, “Where’s my commission?” The clock strikes twelve, and there’s no ticket to the ball. (Unwavering Rule: No timely delivery of the commission and you, sir, are completely out of luck.)
Why didn’t he receive it?
Jefferson comes in, sees what Adams has tried to pull off, and it’s, “Yeah, like I’m giving Federalist Marbury a commission to be Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia. I am a Democratic-Republican, and by heavens – although I do not actually believe in heaven – I am determined to sweep the reeking residue of Federalist detritus into the historical dustbin. I am Thomas Jefferson, and I speak like this.”
The new administration takes office, and they throw away Marbury’s commission. (Historical Note: I don’t know if they literally threw it away; he just didn’t receive it. On the other hand, why would they keep it around? To laugh at? (MOCKINGLY SING-SONGY): “You’re not getting this… You’re not getting this…”)
Marbury is understandably upset.
“They promised me a commission. I want my commission!”
What happens then is that Marbury sues the Jefferson government for his anticipated commission, taking his case to constitutionally established Supreme Court.
It now behooves the Supreme Court to ostensibly rule for Adams – who tried to cram the courts with Federalist judges before he imminently left town – or for Jefferson, who told his Secretary of State, Madison (hence the naming of the landmark Supreme Court case Marbury versus Madison), charged with delivering the commissions:
“Toss those commissions in the fireplace. The White House is unseasonably chilly.”
Okay. That’s as far as I want to go. As they said on the fifties kids’ show broadcast from Buffalo called Fun To Learn: “If you want to know how this story ends, you’ll have to go to your local library and find out.”)
The point is this:
During this election season, when you hear on TV or read wherever you read things that the Supreme Court (and its upcoming appointments) has become overly “politicized”, remember Marbury versus Madison. Or Democrat president Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to “pack” the court with like-minded Democrats. Or the 2000 election in which a majority of Republican justices handed the presidency to the Republican candidate…
And say haughtily, if you have “haughtily” in your repertoire:
“Oh yeah? What else is new?”
A Small But Meaningful Addendum: How many of our institutions that we rebuke for not living up to their loftiest standards ever behaved that way in the first place? And why do we continue to believe that they can?