Roane, Spencer (1762–1822)

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ROANE, SPENCER (1762–1822)

Spencer Roane, a Virginian, was the foremost judicial exponent of states ' rights in the era of the marshall court, and President thomas jefferson would have made him Chief Justice of the United States had the opportunity arisen. Roane served for twenty-eight years (1794–1822) on Virginia's highest court. Before then he was a state legislator. He opposed ratification of the constitution and never abandoned his belief that the national government possessed powers dangerous to the states.

Roane supported the authority of his court to hold unconstitutional a state act and even a congressional act, but he denied the authority of the Supreme Court to hold a state act unconstitutional. As leader of the nation's most influential state court he regarded the Supreme Court as a rival, and his words carried extrajudicial influence. He founded the Richmond Enquirer and ran Virginia politics. By the close of his life he headed an organization that controlled Virginia's press, its banks, its congressional delegation, and all three branches of its state government. He was john marshall's most formidable foe and outspoken opponent.

In the controversy leading to martin v. hunter ' s lessee (1816), Roane's court held unconstitutional section 25 of the judiciary act of 1789. In 1815 he described the United States as "a confederation of distinct sovereignties." His constitutional decisions differed from the Marshall Court's even on matters not involving the nature of the Union. He sustained the act later held void in terrett v. taylor (1815) and supported the state in a case similar to dartmouth college v. woodward (1819).

His vehement opposition to the nationalist doctrines of mcculloch v. maryland (1819) and cohens v. virginia (1821) led him to denounce the Marshall Court in a series of essays in the Richmond Enquirer, which Jefferson warmly acclaimed and even james madison tentatively endorsed. Roane's views on the Union were probably closer to those of 1787 than Marshall's. Doubtlessly Roane loved the "federal union" as he understood it, although Marshall called him "the champion of dismemberment." Roane was an able, orthodox judge who died a sectional advocate.

Leonard W. Levy


Mays, David J. 1928 Judge Spencer Roane. Proceedings of the Thirty-Ninth Annual Meeting of The Virginia State Bar Association 39:446–464.