The Responsiveness of the Courts

Map of Baltimore, showing construction and location of Barron’s wharf.

The Nullification Crisis had an impact on the jurisprudence of American law, changing the interaction of the federal government with the states.

One such example was the case, Barron v. Baltimore, from 1833, “which presented the question whether the city of Baltimore, in damaging a privately owned wharf, had violated the ‘takings’ clause of the Fifth Amendment.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 414. The Fifth Amendment provides that “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” U.S. Const., 5th Amend.

The wharf owner won a judgment of $4,500, which the Maryland Supreme Court disallowed, holding that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution did not apply to the state of Maryland, and its subdivision, the city of Baltimore. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 414. Instead, the Maryland Supreme Court held that the Constitution only applied to the federal government. Id.

When the Supreme Court of the United States heard the appeal and issued its decision, John Marshall rendered the decision for the unanimous court. See id. citing Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Peters) 243 (1833). The chief justice held that the Bill of Rights was restricted to only the federal government and did not apply to the states. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 414 citing Walker Mayo, “The Federal Bill of Rights and the States Before the Fourteenth Amendment,” (D. Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1993).

It would not be until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and its interpretation in the Twentieth Century for the Supreme Court to rework this jurisprudence. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 414.

The political climate of 1833 necessitated this result from the Supreme Court. Perhaps it is one prominent example of how the Supreme Court can in fact be influenced by public opinion, not just considering public opinion but basing its decision on public opinion. In Barron v. Baltimore, it seems that the Supreme Court was keenly aware of the public’s mood for putting states’ rights ahead of the federal government.

Modern Americans should recognize that although the Supreme Court and the judiciary as a whole appears to be a neutral branch of government, only concerned with fairness and justice, those notions of fairness and justice change as public opinion changes. As the public adopts different views on policies for the government, the courts react. The judges who administer justice in the judiciary, after all, are people too. They have the same predilections and predispositions that any other person does. In that way, Barron v. Baltimore illustrates how the courts are constantly changing with American society.

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