1937 February 5

FDR Proposes Court-Packing Plan


President Franklin Roosevelt on this day sent to Congress the proposal for his famous “Court Packing” plan that would have allowed him to enlarge the Supreme Court. On March 9th he explained the plan to the public in one of his famous “Fireside Chats.”  The plan provoked an immediate backlash and is generally regarded as the biggest mistake in Roosevelt’s presidential career. The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 would have allowed him to appoint an additional Justice for every Justice over the age of 70 and 6 months. Roosevelt devised the plan because the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional the most important New Deal measures designed to get the country out of the Depression, including primarily the National Recovery Administration (NRA).

The “court-packing” plan proved to be a political disaster for the usually politically astute Roosevelt. It was immediately seen by Republicans and even many Democrats as a power grab that would give FDR control of all three branches of government. On July 22, the Senate voted 70-20 to send it back to the Judiciary Committee, effectively killing the president’s plan. (The Senate later passed a much revised bill which did not include the president’s plan.) Interestingly, the ACLU took no position on the plan, arguing that the Court had done so little for civil liberties up until that time that changing its composition would make no real difference.

Although FDR lost the court-packing plan battle, he won the war over the Supreme Court. The Court reversed itself in the spring and upheld two economic regulation laws. Conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter retired at the end of the court’s term in June, and Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black as his replacement. Within just a few years. Roosevelt’s appointees represented a solid majority, creating the liberal, pro-civil liberties Roosevelt Court (1937–1945). Although FDR did not nominate justices because of their views on civil liberties, the Roosevelt Court became the first great civil liberties Court, laying a foundation of constitutional law that the later Warren Court (1953–1969) would build on.

Listen to Roosevelt explain his court-packing plan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUBH1dygxyE

Learn more: Peter Irons, A People’s History of the Supreme Court (1999)

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