Justice Greaney Addresses Mass. Newspaper Publishers

John M. Greaney


An 1803 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the court as the final authority on the meaning of the U.S. Constitution was the topic as Justice John M. Greaney addressed the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.

Greaney joined Suffolk University Law School this month as director of the Macaronis Institute for Trial and Appellate Advocacy following his retirement from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Impact on racial segregation

He discussed Marbury v. Madison, a case that many scholars believe was wrongly decided. Yet, in giving the Supreme Court of the United States the status to declare acts of the president and Congress unconstitutional, it has had far-reaching implications.

Without the Marbury ruling, the Supreme Court would not have ruled as it did in Brown v. Board of Education, said Greaney, and the civil rights movement might have been nipped in the bud.

Freedom of the press

The Marbury decision also affected some significant First Amendment cases in which different outcomes would have restricted freedom of the press, said Greaney, who served as co-chair of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary-Media Committee.

It all began with the politics of lame-duck President John Adams, who intended to appoint a number of justices following his defeat by Thomas Jefferson. His secretary of state, John Marshall, signed the appropriate documents and sent his brother to deliver them.

But 17 of the appointees had not received their commissions by the time Thomas Jefferson took office. Jefferson’s administration refused to acknowledge those 17, including William Marbury, who brought his case directly to the Supreme Court.

Conflict of interest

Meanwhile, John Marshall had been named chief justice, and, given that he and his brother were directly involved in the issue at had, should have recused himself, said Greaney. There were additional questions about jurisdiction and whether the Constitution addressed the specific issues brought up by the case.

Yet Marshall issued a ruling that led to the independence of the courts.

In his opinion, Marshall wrote: "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each."

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Greg Gatlin

Mariellen Norris