Truly returns to CNU for Keynote Address

Nationally recognized legal scholar Jonathan Turley spoke at the CNU American Studies Center’s 12th Annual Conference on America’s Founding Principles and History


Nationally recognized legal scholar and George Washington Professor Jonathan Turley gave the Keynote Address of last Thursday’s conference in Gaines Theater.

In a speech titled “Chief Among Equals: A Comparative Analysis of Chief Justices In History,” Turley addressed an underlying question about the position of chief justice on the Supreme Court: is there one chief justice that is first among equals?

Accompanied with a history of United States chief justices, Turley’s speech culminated in the three characteristics of a great chief justice and defense of Chief Justice Earl Warren as the “greatest of them all.”

He delineated his three criteria as those who transformed the country or law, had powerful visions and were institutionalist in their voting decisions. For Turley, ‘winners’ of each respective category were Chief Justices John Marshall, Earl Warren and Morrison Waite.

Praising the power of a visionary Justice, Turley ultimately ranked Earl Warren as the “greatest of them all,” citing his strong leadership that transformed the country. Notable decisions of the Warren Court include Tinker v Des Moines, Miranda v Arizona and Gideon v Wainwright.

Turley defended Warren’s leadership while also acknowledging his he may not have been the greatest legal scholar or writer. Perhaps what we can learn from the past, according to Turley, is that Supreme Court Justices are not always chosen for the right reasons.  

Throughout the lecture, Turley clarified and fact-checked common views of the Chief Justice position through a broader explanation of roles Constitutional and 18th Century political context.

In particular, Turley targeted the popular perception that Chief Justice John Marshall was the ‘first and greatest.’

“The first assumption is false and the second is debatable,” Turley said.

Citing the accomplishments and background of first Chief Justice John Jay, Turley defined Jay’s legacy through defining moments such as his Jay Treaty, failed attempt at the presidency, and notorious embarrassment of being burned in effigy.

Turley continued through the historical timeline, anecdotally conveying the madness of Chief Justice John Rutledge’s attempted suicides and briefly explaining the Cushing and Ellsworth’s courts. Through a break-down of Marshall’s appointment to the court, Turley repeatedly emphasized the divisive and “poisonous” political atmosphere of the republic’s early years.

“The Constitution was written for times like ours in times like ours,” Turley said. “We talk about politicians trying to kill each other but they were actually trying to kill each other.”

Turley spoke about Adams nomination of Marshall’s as a political action not necessarily based on merit or knowledge of the law. Citing an anecdote from his classroom, Turley explained how he knows his students did not read Marshall’s “boring” and “poorly written” opinion of Marbury v Madison: they say they thoroughly enjoyed it.

By contrast, Turley spoke highly of Chief Justice Joseph Story, who was also the Founder of Harvard Law School as one of the most “brilliant justices to sit on the bench” whose “opinions were extraordinary.”

Turley briefly mentioned his plan to gradually increase the number of Supreme Court Justices to nineteen, calling the current quota of nine “demonstratively small.” Referencing that his proposal was somewhat dead but alive (after being continuously passed around Congress for many years), his bill in Congress garnered some audience laughter and Turley was asked for more information in a question after the lecture. He argued that such an increase might mitigate the divisiveness of one nomination (seen recently in the Kavanaugh hearings) because the stakes simply would not be as high.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and the youngest chaired professor in the school’s history. He has published extensively in areas ranging from constitutional law to legal theory and runs his popular legal blog

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