A Most Flawed Inheritance

John Jay, the first United States Supreme Court Chief Justice. By: Gilbert Stuart.

Prior to the Revolution, the colonists relied on a court system with royally appointed judges that served indefinitely “during good behavior,” which ultimately meant that judges would hold office so long as the crown was pleased with them. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 400. This led to the colonists ultimately associating the judiciary with the “resented royal governors, or chief magistrates,” which undermined the colonists’ confidence that the courts were an option for redress. Id.

The colonists viewed the judiciary not “as an independent entity or even as a separate branch of government,” but as a political body “that performed numerous administrative and executive tasks.” Id. During these early years, the “courts in most colonies had assessed taxes, granted licenses, overseen poor relief, supervised road repairs, set prices, upheld moral standards, and all in all monitored the localities over which they presided.” Id. quoting William E. Nelson, Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachusetts Society, 1760-1830 (Cambridge, MA, 1975), 14-16.

As such, early Americans, including John Adams, concluded that there were two kinds of constitutional powers: “those of legislation and those of execution.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 401.

After the Revolution, the role of courts in citizens’ lives changed. The Constitution’s division of government into the three branches played a significant role in this, but progress was gradual. For example, even after the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton described the duties of judges as “two-fold, ‘judicial and ministerial,’ and the ministerial duties were ‘performed out of Court and often without reference to it.'” Id. quoting Alexander Hamilton, The Examination, February 23, 1802.

This led to John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to conclude that the Court did not have “the ‘Energy, weight and Dignity’ to support the national government and little likelihood of acquiring any.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 437 quoting John Jay to John Adams, January 2, 1801, in Maeva Marcus et al., eds., The Documentary History of the United States Supreme Court (New York, 1992) 4:664.

This brief look into the place of the courts at the time of the Revolution and shortly thereafter highlights the changes between the years of the early Republic and modern times. Courts are purely limited to adjudicating disputes. Depending on the jurisdiction, those disputes can be as narrow and specific as family matters, or matters under a threshold dollar amount like $5,000.00, while other courts hear more general matters. But courts do not engage in any of the administrative or ministerial functions that partially defined the role of courts in citizens’ lives.

The most notable change since the early years of the Republic is the trust that citizens place in the judiciary. While in the early years citizens were disenchanted with the courts because the courts were so closely tied with the crown, courts now likely garner the highest respect between the three branches of government. While there are instances of corruption or wrongdoing in the court system, many look to the courts as a hallmark of America’s success in peacefully, justly, and fairly adjudicating disputes amongst citizens. Fortunately for modern Americans, this most flawed inheritance of a dysfunctional court system has been converted into one that is widely admired and heavily used.

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