Report from Governmental Affairs

A Coin for the Court

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The image of U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall will ap­pear soon on a commemorative $1 silver coin, marking the first time the U.S. Su­preme Court or any of its justices have been honored in that way.

The coin will commemorate the 250th anniversary of Marshall’s birth, which occurs in 2005. Sales will raise funds for the Supreme Court Historical Society, an in­dependent nonprofit organization that promotes public understanding about the court, the nation’s constitu­tional heritage and the importance of the rule of law.

The ABA, which vigorously urged Congress to authorize the coin, con­siders it a fitting and long-overdue honor for Marshall, who was the dominant figure on the Su­preme Court during its formative years. Marshall served as chief justice for 34 years, from 1801 to 1835, and wrote more than 500 opinions.

The legislation authorizing the Marshall commemorative coin has passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and President Bush was expected to sign it into law before the end of the summer.

Current Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist emphasized the significance of this commemoration in early March, when he made a rare trip to Capitol Hill to testify in support of the Marshall coin legislation.

Rehnquist pointed out that Marshall’s efforts were largely responsible for gaining the federal judiciary’s co-equal status with the legislative and executive branches. One of Marshall’s principal achievements as chief jus­tice, said Rehnquist, was writing the court’s 1803 opinion in Marbury v. Madison, which established the prin­ciple of judicial review.

Rehnquist noted that Oliver Wendell Holmes, an eminent Supreme Court justice in the early 1930s, once said, “If American law were to be represented by a single figure, skeptic and worshipper alike would agree without dispute that the figure would be one alone, and that one [is] John Marshall.”


Commemorative coins celebrate and honor American people, places, events and institutions. Although these coins are legal tender, they are not minted for general circulation and are produced in limited quantity for a short period of time.

Congress authorizes the minting of only two commemorative coins a year, and competition is fierce because a surcharge per coin generates substantial income for the benefit of the sponsoring charitable organization.

The Citizens Commemorative Coin Advisory Com­mit­tee to the Treasury Department proposed Marshall as a possible subject for recognition. The initial sponsors of bills authorizing the coin were Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Spencer Bachus, R.-Ala.

The legislative process for approving commemora­tive coins is governed by special rules that prohibit coin bills from being brought to the House or Senate floor unless they are sponsored by two-thirds of the members of that chamber. The Marshall coin bill attracted more co-sponsors than needed, with 75 sponsors among the Sen­ate’s 100 members and 304 sponsors in the 435-member House.

The legislation authorizes the minting of 400,000 Marshall coins. The Con­gres­sion­al Budget Office estimates that each commemorative coin issued in recent years has produced about $1.5 million for its sponsoring organization.

In a letter to Congress in January, then-ABA President Dennis W. Archer of Detroit noted that the Supreme Court Historical Society will use money raised from the sale of the coin to help fund activities that “support and preserve the history of one cornerstone of our democracy—the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.

This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

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