[FOUNTAIN]The bench’s power to shape a countryWhich presidential appointment was the most important in U.S. history? Historians would probably choose John Marshall, who was appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, named his friend Mr. Marshall to the job on the day before he left office. It was a decision intended to maximize his legacy. Mr. Marshall served for 34 years, and contributed enormously to the framework of the country.
Prior to his term, the chief justice was not an important figure. There was no real power in the office. The nation’s first chief justice resigned to run for governor of New York; the second quit when the top job on the North Carolina Supreme Court came open.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Marshall had little formal education, but he was a natural leader. He asserted the power of the Supreme Court to overturn legislation it deemed unconstitutional, and did much to unite the states under the federal constitution. His 1,100 rulings established a constitutional government. The judiciary became more prestigious than the legislature and the presidency.
That is why an ambitious U.S. president has his eye on the judiciary. Franklin Roosevelt once tried to dilute the Supreme Court’s power by increasing the number of judges, but dropped that idea in the face of strong resistance. George W. Bush is also very dissatisfied with the judiciary, mostly for religious reasons. In March, the Supreme Court was criticized by conservative Christians for refusing to intervene to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, a comatose woman on life support. One television evangelist compared the courts to Al Qaeda.
William Rehnquist, the present chief justice of the Supreme Court, is likely to retire this year because of health problems. Mr. Bush and the conservative forces are already taking action. The president has already appointed a great many conservatives to the federal courts. The Senate is already buzzing about the next appointment. Conservatism seems to be spreading from the White House and the legislature to the judiciary. Those around the world who worry about the superpower’s increasing conservatism will probably have more cause for concern.
by Oh Byung-sang
The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s London correspondent.