Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review of "The Great Decision"

Just finished another audiobook, this time The Great Decision by Cliff Sloan and David McKean.

This steps outside the bounds of my usual reading fare in that it is a historical narrative of sorts. It tells the fascinating story of the Marbury v. Madison supreme court decision, a landmark case that redefined the Supreme Court and established its place as a co-equal member of the new government.

The case came about after the hotly contested Adams/Jefferson election in 1800. The Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists were dueling it out (quite literally in some cases) for the structure of the government. When Adams lost, all hope for the Federalist cause seemed lost. But Adams quickly hatched a plan to attempt to preserve power by taking control of the Judiciary.

The Judiciary Act of 1801 had just been passed, and that bill created dozens of vacancies for justices of the peace and circuit judges. In a frenzy of activity, Adams quickly appointed 16 Federalist circuit judges and 42 Federalist justices before Jefferson could assume the office in March. These justices, henceforth known as the midnight judges for the late hour of their appointment, included William Marbury from whom the case got its name.

The task of making appointments was not complete when Jefferson arrived on March 4th, and he discovered to his delight that some of the commission had not been delivered by the previous Secretary of State and current Supreme Court John Marshall.

Jefferson reportedly instructed the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to not deliver the commissions, denying judges like Marbury their appointed positions. Marbury made a challenge to the supreme court arguing that once the commission had been created, the appointment had been made in full so the Secretary had no power to withhold the commissions.

This case was critical to American history because it established the Supreme Court, previously viewed as a joke without even a proper home in the new capital, as a coequal branch of government with the power to declare actions law unconstitutional. It laid the framework for the separation of powers we have today.

The book itself was less compelling than the story it told and at times could be a little dry. But more interesting than the case itself and why I recommend reading it was the juicy asides about the personal lives and backbiting of the founding fathers.

Today we glorify the founding fathers as ahead of their time: visionaries with unprecedented intellect. While the documents they created founded a great nation, the men behind the story were just as apish as any politician today.

A popular narrative today from both sides of the aisle is a sort of appeal to the good old days of the founding fathers. We cannot imagine that the petty partisan bickering that dominate our politics today could have possibly afflicted the founding fathers. But in reality, the parallels between the two worlds go much further than I had realized. Some of the anti-Republican rhetoric of 1800 made Glenn Beck seem charitable.

If for no other reason than developing a less saintly (and hence more realistic) view of the founders, I recommend giving The Great Decision a listen.

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