Issue 2: James McCulloch v. The State of Maryland, John James


This is the second issue of “The Supreme Court is Usually Badass”, where I discuss a Supreme Court case and my opinion on its effects throughout U.S. History. I would also enjoy others to participate and discuss the decisions of the case, if one feels so inclined. Also, I’ll get to some more recent ones soon; however, the older ones were a little more epic.

James McCulloch v. The State of Maryland, John James, 17 U.S. 316 (1819) (


In April 1816, the U.S. Congress passed an act that established the Second Bank of the United States. At this time (as was briefly touched upon in the last issue), the big issue between political parties of the day was the rights of the Federal Government versus the rights of the States. On one hand, the Federalists (e.g., Alexander Hamilton and John Adams) called for national banks, national tariffs and international trade; on the other hand, the Democratic-Republicans (e.g., Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) pushed for more States’ rights, and less federal interference. As one might infer, the establishment of a national bank was a hot topic of the day. Anyway, Maryland (the State) was not too keen on the fact that the Second Bank of the United States opened a branch in Baltimore, Maryland (the head of the Bank: James William McCulloch). Naturally, the best course of action is to levy a tax on all banks in the State of Maryland that are not chartered by the state legislature (guess how many banks in Maryland were not charted by the legislature…that’s right, one…the Second Bank of the United States). McCulloch refuses to pay the taxes, and the Maryland Court of Appeals rules in favor of Maryland demanding that the tax be paid because “the Constitution is silent on the subject of banks”. Hilarity ensues.

Synopsis of Proceedings

There is nothing particularly interesting about the proceedings.

Questions before the Court

  1. Do States retain ultimate sovereignty?
  2. Does the Necessary and Proper Clause ( of the U.S. Constitution allow Congress to pass legislation upon implied powers?
  3. Can the Necessary and Proper Clause of the U.S. Constitution ever limit the powers of Congress? As in, can legislation be struck down because the legislation is not necessary?


In a 7-0 decision, Chief Justice John Marshall issued the opinion of the court joined by Justice Washington, Justice Johnson, Justice Livingston, Justice Todd, Justice Duvall and Justice Story. In response to (1), the Court opined that the States are not sovereign based upon the fact that the Constitution was ratified by the states. In the Court’s opinion, the people, alone, are the sovereign entity in the United States. In response to (2), the Court opined that, despite the fact that the Constitution does not expressly give Congress the power to create a national bank, Congress has the right to do so under the Necessary and Proper Clause. Finally, in response to (3), the Court opined that the Necessary and Proper Clause was a power of the Congress, and, therefore, could never be used to limit the powers of Congress. Chief Justice Marshall sums up the opinion of the court by stating:

“[A] criterion of what is constitutional, and of what is not so … is the end, to which the measure relates as a mean. If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority. There is also this further criterion which may materially assist the decision: Does the proposed measure abridge a pre-existing right of any State, or of any individual? If it does not, there is a strong presumption in favour of its constitutionality…”


The Marshall Court, for the first time in U.S. history, sets the precedent that Congress maintains the right to implied powers for the use of implementing Congress’ express powers as outlined by the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the Court also set the precedent that a State government may not impede a valid constitutional exercise of the federal government. As one may note, this decision is one of the most important decisions in the history of the U.S. Many subsequent cases utilize McCulloch v. Maryland as a means to justify federal action. I believe it was even brought up in the proceedings of Florida, et al. v. Department of Health and Human Services, et al.