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April 1, 2014

Ranking the Supreme Court's heavy hitters

In the nation's history, 112 people have served on the Supreme Court of the United States. Suppose that we were to select the all-time greats. Who would make the cut?

To answer that question, we need a metric. It makes sense to consider two factors: historical significance and legal ability. It would be too contentious to include only those justices with whom one agrees, so let's make this list ideology- free. We'll also exclude the current justices, because it is too early to tell whether any will count among the all-time greats.

Without further ado, here are the greatest Supreme Court justices, along with the year they were appointed to the court:

  • John Marshall (1801). If the court has a Babe Ruth, it's John Marshall. The authority of the national government, as Americans understand it, owes a great deal to Marshall's early opinions. Marshall can claim primary responsibility for the fundamental principles that continue to organize our law. One example is the broad regulatory power of Congress. Another example is the power of judicial review itself, which authorizes the court to strike down acts of Congress and state legislatures.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1902). Holmes's mind was like a razor, and he is widely believed to have been the greatest writer in the court's history. Actually, he was the second- greatest, but that's not bad.

Holmes' defining contribution was an insistence on a modest role for the federal judiciary. His pithy explanation: "If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It's my job." Holmes insisted that a constitution "is made for people of fundamentally differing views." If Marshall was the court's Babe, Holmes was its Hank Aaron — the greatest home-run hitter who didn't use steroids.

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