Block on Trump's Asylum Ban Upheld by Supreme Court
What makes the Supreme Court supreme? Why is it the final arbiter on the validity of laws and the meaning of the Constitution? The answer, of course, is Marbury v. Madison. But it wasn't always so. In the earliest days of the Court, the institution was hardly as august as it is today -- and getting to that point involved some strange dealings and significant power struggles.
So, in today's recap of "More Perfect," NPR's new podcast on Supreme Court history, we're looking at Marbury v. Madison -- and the history of scorned romances, bacon-faced judges, and dank potato holes that gave rise to one of the Supreme Court's most important decisions ever.
Our Sad Supreme Court
This episode of "More Perfect" is a fitting reminder of the humble origins of the Court -- or, as "More Perfect"'s Kelsey Padgett tells it, of how, in the early days of the republic, the Supreme Court had "sooooo little power."
The first Court, for example, had only six justices. In contrast to today's debates over Court vacancies, at the time no one seemed to mind that an even-numbered Court could result in evenly split decisions. Supposedly, that was because Congress just couldn't imagine the Court deciding anything of note, according to Akhil Reed Amar, a legal scholar at Yale.
The Court's importance was reflected in its makeup, and its meeting places. The Court handled "these little, tiny, rinky-dink cases," with justices physically traveling through the country to hear disputes. (The traveling judge is the basis for today's circuit courts, though the practice dates back to King Henry II and the origin of English common law.) Those carriage-riding jurists were a group of "misfits" and a "motley crew that isn't organized," according to WilmerHale's Ari Savitzsky. One, Justice Samuel Chase, was endearingly known as "Old Bacon Face."
And when they met in D.C., they held court in the basement of Congress, in a "dark, dank potato hole."
John Marshall Remakes the Court
Marshall vs. Jefferson, or as We Know It, Marbury v. Madison
But, power is relative. A few decades later, President Andrew Jackson famously ignored the Marshall Court, years after Marbury, leading to the Trail of Tears. Many Southern governors ignored (or attempted to ignore) Brown v. Board of Ed. And many Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice -- or even say how many people sit on the Court.
Podcasts can't change history, but they can impact the present, however slightly. So, in what is perhaps an effort to make the Supreme Court a little more supreme, this episode of "More Perfect" was titled "Kittens Kick the Giggly Blue Robot All Summer." That's a mnemonic device to help you remember all the names of the current Justices.