Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, Talk:Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937
Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937
, frequently called the Court-packing Bill
, was a proposal in 1937 by United States President Franklin Roosevelt
for power to appoint an extra Supreme Court Justice
for every sitting Justice over the age of 70 and six months. This was proposed in response to the Supreme Court overturning several of his New Deal
measures that proponents claim were designed to help the United States
recover from the Great Depression
Franklin Roosevelt sought a novel way to ensure the constitutionality of his legislative agenda after the Supreme Court of the United States repeatedly on 5-4 votes invalidated elements of his New Deal on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act
in United States v. Butler et al
(1936) and the National Recovery Administration
in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States
(1935). Although "inclined to wait until a vacancy naturally occurred on the Court," Roosevelt's first term passed without the opportunity to appoint a justice, a happening virtually unprecedented in the history of the American presidency. Increasingly frustrated, Roosevelt sought a means to change the balance of the Court. By statute, the Supreme Court justices numbered nine since 1869. Article III of the U.S. Constitution is silent as to how many justices may serve on the Court at any given time. Instead, the Constitution simply provides that the "judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court..." without specifying the number of justices on that Court. Only the office of "Chief Justice" is self-executing, as it alone is mentioned in the Constitution in Article I, section 3 as the officer responsible for presiding over presidential impeachments. Roosevelt and an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress faced a Court that had for thirty years been reading into the Constitution
a doctrine of "freedom of contract" hostile to social legislation. He came to view the Court's actions as an overextension of judicial authority frustrating the will of the people. Roosevelt decried the activism of conservative justices as "reading into the Constitution words and implications which are not there, and which were never intended to be there." http://millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/diglibrary/prezspeeches/roosevelt/fdr_1937_0309.html
Emboldened by his landslide victory but faced with the prospect of a hostile court, Roosevelt determined to thwart its ability to block the legislative agenda of his second term. Although the Hughes Court had six justices over the age of 70 and six months, no vacancy loomed in the foreseeable future. Therefore in his first "fireside chat
" to the Nation of the second term of his Presidency, he made his case to the American people to support his plan as "the need to meet the unanswered challenge of one-third of a Nation ill-nourished, ill-clad, ill-housed." http://millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/diglibrary/prezspeeches/roosevelt/fdr_1937_0309.html
Presented as a bill to relieve the workload on elderly judges, the bill would have allowed Roosevelt to appoint one judge for each sitting judge over age 70 and six months with at least ten years of experience. Roosevelt could have appointed six more Supreme Court justices immediately, increasing the size of the court to 15 members. A Congress dominated by Democrats undoubtedly would have appointed judges friendly to Roosevelt and his New Deal agenda.This targeted the conservative appointments of the business-oriented Republican Presidents Warren G. Harding
and Calvin Coolidge
. Because the justices against the New Deal were stronger by only one vote (5-4), even two such appointments would reset the equilibrium in favor of Roosevelt.
Top aides suggested alternative judicial reforms -- a constitutional amendment allowing a two-thirds vote of Congress to overrule Supreme Court rulings, for example -- but Roosevelt would not budge. He also downplayed worries about the disingenuousness of his message, which said his bill was the best solution to an alleged judicial backlog rather than a justified attack on an unruly Supreme Court. Republicans like Herbert Hoover, whom FDR ousted in the 1932 presidential election, accused Roosevelt of attempting "to pack the court." But the president's political enemies did far less damage to his cause than his friends. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Hatton Sumners
made this ominous statement to colleagues about his support of Roosevelt: "Boys, this is where I cash in my chips." Other conservative Democrats expressed similar sentiments. Sen. George Norris
, who had empanelled a national conference on judicial reform soon after Roosevelt's inaugural, announced his opposition to the court-packing bill, as did liberal Sen. Burton K. Wheeler
, who ultimately became the measure's most vocal foe. Even liberal Justice Louis D. Brandeis
, the oldest member of the court, privately expressed his opposition.
Roosevelt promoted the bill in his 9th Fireside Chat
, broadcast over national radio on March 9
. (http://millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/diglibrary/prezspeeches/roosevelt/fdr_1937_0309.html Text and audio.
After submitting his plan to Congress, a heated argument ensued. Some Roosevelt supporters hailed the action as a sign of Roosevelt's strong leadership during tough times. However, opponents seized on Roosevelt's explanation of why the bill was necessary. William Allen White
, one of the most renowned editorialists of his day, reached this conclusion Feb. 6: "Because he is adroit and not forthright, he arouses irritating suspicions, probably needlessly, about his ultimate intentions as the leader of his party and the head of government." Still confident that he could win the public's backing despite opinion polls that indicated otherwise, Roosevelt ignored much of the criticism.
In a March 9 "fireside chat," he acknowledged his true intentions -- to create a Supreme Court that could "understand these modern conditions" -- but it had no measurable influence on public opinion. Support began to slip after Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in March, and by June, Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to a compromise that would have allowed him to name just two new justices. But it was too late. On June 14, the committee issued a scathing report that called FDR's plan "a needless, futile and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle… without precedent or justification." The opposition, led by John Garner
, strongly opposed the plan as an abuse of presidential authority because they believed the bill would have given the President indirect control of the Supreme Court by adding justices that favored his New Deal programs.
The plan was introduced into the Senate
first because Roosevelt expected stronger opposition in the House
. The Senate opened debate on the substitute proposal July 2. But within days, Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson
, the bill's leading advocate, left the chamber with chest pains. He, and Roosevelt's court-packing hopes with him, died at home July 14. On July 22, the Senate voted 70-20 to send the judicial-reform measure back to committee, where all the controversial language was stripped from it. The Senate passed the revised legislation a week later, and Roosevelt reluctantly signed it into law Aug. 26.
Roosevelt's court-packing scheme robbed him of much of the political capital he had won in two landslide elections. It also hindered his all-out war on poverty. But although President Roosevelt lost the battle in Congress, he won the war to change the judicial philosophy of the Supreme Court. According to the traditional view of the court-packing episode, Roosevelt's plan had an in terrorem effect on how the existing justices voted. A few days before Roosevelt's announcement of his court packing scheme, Justice Owen Roberts
, a swing vote
who had previously voted with the "four horsemen
" against the New Deal programs, voted to uphold a Washington state labor law establishing a minimum wage, changing the 5-4 majority from conservative to liberal. The switch in time that saved nine
, along with the retirement of Justice Willis Van Devanter
a month later, permanently swung the court in Roosevelt's favor. More recent historical scholarship, such as that by Professor Edward White, suggests that this traditional view is mistaken. There is some confusion that Justice Roberts changed his vote in response to Roosevelt's court packing plan because the decision on the Washington labor law was not handed down until a few days after Roosevelt's announcement. However, the votes in the case had been made several days before Roosevelt's announcement, but Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes
was holding off for the liberal Justice Harlan Stone
, who was ill with dysentery, to return to vote. Justice Stone returned two days after Roosevelt's fire-side chat, to vote the way everyone knew he would - for the minimum wage law. In any event, the plan had no support in Congress or with the American people.
In the end, however, Roosevelt had his way. Through the appointments process, Roosevelt in his second term nominated and the Senate confirmed five justices, thereby producing a Court sympathetic to the New Deal. During his entire tenure as President, Roosevelt appointed eight Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. By 1941, all but one of the Justices was a Roosevelt appointee.
*http://www.hpol.org/fdr/chat/ FDR's Bill
*http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_021300_courtpacking.htm Overview of the PlanCategory:New DealCategory:Supreme Court of the United StatesCategory:United States proposed federal legislationCategory:History of the United States (1918–1945)