Dissertations and Theses @ UNI

Award Winner

Recipient of the 2012 Outstanding Master's Thesis Award - Second Place.

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Open Access Thesis


United States. Supreme Court--History--18th century; United States. Supreme Court--History--19th century;


Each branch of the federal government has changed substantially since its creation in 1789. Today, the people directly elect both houses of Congress and citizens hold the President more accountable for his actions. The federal judiciary has grown as well. The third branch of government may have started as a fairly weak tribunal, but during the early national period it grew to an equal branch of government. The Justices redefined the judiciary by their own actions. They worked to amend the circuit riding requirements, adopted a new style of opinions, and asserted the authority of judicial review. Through primary evidence, this thesis will show that the actions of the Justices moved the Supreme Court forward, and not the cases brought to the Court, which some of the secondary literature suggests. During the early years of the Supreme Court, each Justice had to attend two Circuit Courts as well as the Supreme Court. The traveling involved proved arduous and strained not only the Justices' professional lives, but also their personal lives. The issue of circuit riding also posed problems for the execution of justice. While sitting on the Supreme bench, Justices reviewed their own decisions from the Circuit Court. To ease the burdens from both these problems, the Justices sought relief through Congress. The Justices lobbied Congress and persuaded them to pass both the Circuit Court Act of 1792 and the Judiciary Act of 1793. The adoption of a new opinion writing style enhanced the authority of the Supreme Court by giving it a unified voice. Chief Justice John Marshall understood the political climate of the early nineteenth century. He knew that if the Court wanted to maintain authority they could no longer speak separately through seriatim opinions. The "opinion of the Court" allowed the Court to use a single voice, which gave a single message to the lower courts. This style of opinions also gave Marshall the opportunity to leave his mark on the history of the Court. The establishment of judicial review secured for the Supreme Court a position as a branch of government. Judicial review gave the Court the final word on constitutional matters. The Court became the defender and protector of the United States Constitution. The Court gained this authority over the course of many years. Delegates debated the issue at the Constitutional Convention, framers urged its importance during ratification, and the Court itself created precedent. Finally, in 1803, the case of Marbury v. Madison cemented the Court's authority of judicial review. Almost one hundred years later, in 1925, the Supreme Court reinforced its position as a branch of government. Under Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the Court urged Congress to pass the Judiciary Act of 1925. By this Act, the Supreme Court became a court of discretionary jurisdiction. This means that the Court gets to decide what a constitutional question is. The Supreme Court of the twenty-first century has a much different appearance than the Court of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From its marble home adjacent to the Capitol, the Justices interpret and declare the law of the land. The actions of the justices of the early national period brought the Supreme Court from a weak tribunal to a branch of government.

Year of Submission


Year of Award

2012 Award

Degree Name

Master of Arts


Department of History

First Advisor

John W. Johnson, Chair, Thesis Committee


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Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (iv, 103 pages)



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