Go online and read one of the briefs from the Marshall Court’s most significant decisions: Marbury, Fletcher, Dartmouth, McCulloch, or Gibbons. Answer the following questions: What was the basic question that was decided by the court? What was the decision that was made?  What was the effect of the decision? How did the decision impact the power of the state and/or federal governments? Do you think the court made the right decision?

Quick answer:

Like described in all of the briefs from the Marshall Court's most significant decisions listed, the Court's 1819 ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland strengthened the powers of the federal government, broadened the scope of the Constitution, and expanded the reach of the federal judiciary.

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Each of these decisions was handed down by the Marshall Court. Under the leadership of John Marshall, the Supreme Court made a series of rulings that increased the powers of the federal government vis-a-vis the states. Its judgements established the Court, and the federal judiciary more broadly, as a powerful and co-equal branch of government. Let us look at one of the examples from the question, the Court's decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819).

In McCulloch, the basic question before the Court was whether states had the power to tax the Bank of the United States, which was created in the 1790s as part of Alexander Hamilton's financial plan for the nation. The bank was controversial. Some opponents argued that it was not specifically provided for in the Constitution and should be dissolved. The state of Maryland imposed a tax on the Baltimore branch of the Bank, and when its cashier, James McCulloch, refused to pay the tax, a court case arose with important implications.

There were really two questions before the Court. The first was whether a state had the power to tax an entity of the federal government. The second, which emerged in the Court's decision, was whether then Bank was constitutional in the first place. The Court unanimously held that the Bank was, in fact, allowed for under the "Necessary and Proper" Clause of Article I of the Constitution. Even though the Constitution said nothing about a national bank, the power of Congress to create one was implied by some of the other powers that were actually listed, like taxation and printing and coining money. On the second question, the Court ruled that the state had no power to tax a federal institution because of the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution. As Marshall wrote, the "power to tax is the power to destroy," and the Framers did not intend to grant the states the power to destroy anything the federal government did.

These two rulings had enormous implications. Taken together, they cleared up—at least from a constitutional standpoint—the question of "implied powers." Perhaps equally as important, they helped to delineate the boundaries of federal and state power. The decision strengthened the federal government in the process. At a time of debate over states's rights, the constitutionality of domestic "improvements" like roads and canals, and other serious questions regarding interstate commerce and federal contributions to state coffers, the Court's decision in McCulloch was and remains highly consequential.

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