Documents & Debates: Court Packing, Then and Now
October 18, 2023
In this episode, we delve into the historical context of the Supreme Court and the controversial issue of Court packing, which gained prominence during the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) and the Great Depression. We will explore the circumstances that led to FDR’s clash with the Supreme Court, the ideologies at play, and the eventual course of action he pursued. Through a detailed examination of this historical episode, we can draw essential lessons about the relationship between the Executive and the Judiciary, and the dynamics of power in the United States.
The Prelude to Conflict
In the mid-1930s, the United States found itself grappling with the profound economic and social turmoil of the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, known for his New Deal initiatives, sought to implement a wide array of policies to address the crisis. However, the Supreme Court became a formidable obstacle, challenging the constitutionality of key New Deal legislations.
The Supreme Court was divided into factions, with the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” consisting of four conservative justices, staunchly advocating strict constructionism and opposing FDR’s New Deal measures. On the other side were justices such as Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone, who inclined towards judicial restraint and showed more flexibility in interpreting the Constitution. The Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, and Owen Roberts were the unpredictable factors, often determining the outcomes of cases.
The Court-Packing Scheme Unveiled
The tipping point came in 1935 when the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the National Industrial Recovery Act, a centerpiece of FDR’s New Deal strategy. This decision infuriated Roosevelt, who had expected support from justices like Brandeis. Brandeis’s concern over the centralization of economic power led him to vote against the New Deal initiatives, emphasizing the importance of limiting both economic and political centralization.
FDR’s frustration with the Supreme Court’s decisions grew, and he felt betrayed by justices he had believed to be progressive. He was particularly surprised by Brandeis’s stand, as he was known for his progressive advocacy before joining the bench.
FDR’s Response and the Road to Court Packing
After the 1936 landslide re-election and the Democratic Party’s dominance in Congress, FDR decided to address the Supreme Court issue head-on. He wanted to expand his authority and show the extent of his power. Court packing became one of his top priorities in 1937.
FDR considered multiple options, including waiting for the conservative justices to retire and offering financial incentives, as there were no pensions for Supreme Court justices at the time. However, he decided on a bold course of action to reshape the Supreme Court.
The Court packing scheme was a pivotal moment in American history, where the President sought to restructure the Supreme Court to overcome political and ideological obstacles. FDR’s attempt to assert his authority in the face of judicial resistance serves as a valuable lesson in understanding the dynamics of power and governance in the United States.
While the Court packing scheme ultimately failed, it reminds us of the delicate balance of power in the U.S. government and the importance of an independent judiciary in upholding the principles of the Constitution. This historical episode underscores the enduring relevance of past events in shaping the present and guiding us in making informed decisions for the future.
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