February 24, 2021
What we do matters
On this date, February 24th, the President of the United States is impeached. He is later acquitted in the US Senate by a single vote. The year was 1868, the President was Andrew Johnson, and it was the first of four Presidential impeachments in American history. President Johnson stymied reconstruction post-war attempting to undo Lincoln’s legacy. This impeachment helped to establish the boundaries of Executive power that as we’ve recently witnessed, continue to be tested.
However, it was on this date in 1803, that perhaps the most important of all Supreme Court decisions were issued, one that introduced powers of a judicial body only 13 years old and set forth limits to congressional authority that remain intact to this day. For the many lawyers in this meeting that are no doubt well versed on Marbury v Madison, please correct me if I get anything wrong. But for we students of history, just a quick recap of a momentous opinion that shaped the nation, and perhaps the final battle between two founding fathers, the departing President John Adams and the incoming Thomas Jefferson long before their deaths on the same day, July 4th, 1826, the nation’s 50th anniversary – a script that Dee Dee might say, even Hollywood would have difficulty swallowing.
Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion was the 1st time the Supreme Court struck down a law passed by Congress and enacted the principle of judicial review in a very formative nation struggling to create its institutions. It proclaimed the recently drafted Constitution as the actual law of the land, declaring it the province of the court to say what the law is, and drew boundaries for the separation of powers by ruling Congress could not expand the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction as drafted in the Constitution. This brilliantly increased the Court’s power in the future by ruling to limit its own power in the moment.
Armed with this newfound authority, however, the next time the Supreme Court used this awesome power to strike down a federal law was more than half a century later – in perhaps the most repugnant ruling in Supreme Court history – the infamous Dred Scott case and overturning the Missouri Compromise, which excluded black Americans from rights under the Constitution, leading to the civil war, and later, the Presidency of Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s assassination.
Marbury determined the power of judicial review came to cover not just congressional actions but also those of the Executive branch. It was later relied on to require President Nixon to hand over his tapes, leading to his resignation to avoid impeachment, and has been invoked during the impeachment of President Clinton and the recent impeachments of President Trump at a level beyond my comprehension. Although similar to Andrew Johnson, the recent President also relished in undoing his predecessor’s legacy.
As a society, we continue to attempt to rectify the damage done from Dred Scott and by Andrew Johnson, but we rely heavily on the key principles of this nation’s founding and the power of the institutions created to safeguard it. The principles were not inviolate but delicately introduced and indoctrinated through the actions of individuals, such as the singular opinion by our longest-serving Chief Justice, John Marshall, 218 years ago today.
On a separate note, I’d like to acknowledge the birthday of the late Steve Jobs, who would have turned 66 today. A true visionary, steeped in the culture of Silicon Valley, who used his innate talent to leverage all of the assets available to him in the Bay Area to reshape the world via technology and build the most valuable company in history.
We all had a front-row seat to see what can be accomplished by a single person in a sadly truncated lifetime, one who harnessed the culture of innovation and industriousness of the Valley, the talent and knowledge base produced by our schools, and the resources and magic uniquely available in this glorious state. A blueprint that has attracted legions of followers from throughout the world to come and replicate. As a result, for better or worse, nearly every minute of my daily life, both awake and asleep, are affected by technologies brought to us by Mr. Jobs and will likely be so long into the future.
The problems we now face appear daunting, but whether it be pandemics or wildfires, climate change or social inequities, we benefit from all the institutional foundations and technological tools available to invent our future, as both John Marshall and Steve Jobs have so clearly demonstrated – providing proof that what we do matters.
The organizations we will hear from in today’s Board meeting, Scripps Research Institute, the Rand Corporation, and the Seneca Family of Agencies are each leading institutions engaged in vital work on biomedical research, public policy, social justice and child services that will shape our communities and progress our society into the future.