Roosevelt and His Court-Packing Plan

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U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into Law in 1935 (Photo from Social Security Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1937, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a judicial reform bill that would have allowed him to appoint up to six new justices to the Supreme Court.

Here are some things you might not know about what came to be known as Roosevelt’s Court-Packing plan.

Roosevelt won the 1932 election on the basis of his New Deal program to help lift the nation out of the Great Depression. A Democratic-controlled Congress was also elected that year. During Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, Congress wrote and passed a huge amount of legislation designed to reform the banking system, provide jobs to the unemployed and repair the economy.

During Roosevelt’s first term as president, the Supreme Court, which had a Republican majority, struck down several parts of the New Deal program as being unconstitutional.

Roosevelt won reelection to a second term in a landslide over Kansas governor Alf Landon. Roosevelt won 98.49 percent of the electoral vote, the highest percentage ever in a contested election. Roosevelt won every state except Maine and Vermont. He also took 60.8 percent of the popular vote, the second-highest percentage since 1820.

Using this political capital, Roosevelt moved forward with a plan to increase the number of justices on the Court. The idea was that because the Constitution does not define the size of the Supreme Court, it was within the rights of Congress to change it. The proposed legislation focused on the age of the justices. For every justice who didn’t retire within six months of turning 70, the president could nominate a new, younger justice. It would allow the president to appoint up to six new justices.

Public opinion on the change was split, with a consistent plurality against the plan. Roosevelt took to the airwaves with his ninth Fireside Chat radio address to make his case. He blamed the court for misinterpreting the Constitution and for its opposition to the New Deal. The address did little to sway the public. It also did little to sway Congress. The House Judiciary Chairman Hatton W. Sumners split the legislation up in order to prevent the court expansion. Unable to gain a foothold in the House, the administration turned to the Senate, where it stalled as well.

Soon after Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat, the Court handed down a decision upholding Washington state’s minimum wage law, seen as a victory for New Deal policies, and easing political tensions. In May, Justice Willis Van Devanter decided to retire, thus allowing Roosevelt to swing the Court’s majority his way by traditional means. In July, the bill’s champion in the Senate, majority leader Joseph Robinson,  died, ending the faint hope of enacting the legislation. The legislation was rewritten to reform the lower courts, but exclude the court-packing provisions. In August, Hugo Black was sworn in as associate justice.

Roosevelt would go on to appoint eight justices.

Our question, which president was elected with the highest percentage of the popular vote since 1820?

Today is Constitution Day in Mexico and Unity Day in Burundi. It’s National Weatherperson’s Day, National Wear Red Day and World Nutella Day. It’s the birthday of baseball great Henry Aaron, actor Christopher Guest and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

In 1985, the year Cristiano Ronaldo was born, the top song in the U.S. was “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner ; the No. 1 movie was “Beverly Hills Cop,” while the novel “If Tomorrow Comes” by Sidney Sheldon topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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