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Supreme Court Members 1937 (Getty Images)

FDR Vs. The Court: An Epic Power Struggle Relived

Mar 31, 2010

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It's no secret that the three branches of American government don't always get along — fights among the executive, legislative and judicial branches became a "dog bites man" story shortly after the founding of the republic. While it's tempting to succumb to nostalgia and assume that government was a kinder, gentler, more collegial institution back in the day, it's just not true.

Case in point: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's epic fight with the Supreme Court, which began not long after the president instituted the New Deal — various parts of which the court wasted little time in declaring unconstitutional. This is the fascinating power struggle that Jeff Shesol expertly chronicles in his new book, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.

When Roosevelt announced his New Deal to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression in 1933, his proposed programs were met with wide public support (some of which would later subside). There were at least four Americans who weren't fans of his proposals, though — the "Four Horsemen" who made up the conservative wing of the Supreme Court. These justices were joined at times by Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts in striking down some elements of Roosevelt's proposals. The president might have been able to take this in stride, but when the three liberal court justices joined with the rest to declare the National Recovery Administration (NRA) unconstitutional in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, Roosevelt found the decision too much to bear. The NRA was the cornerstone of the New Deal, and Roosevelt felt the court had declared war on him. He would soon decide to declare war right back.

The president's solution was the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937, the now famous "court-packing plan," which would allow him to appoint up to six additional justices to the court. While FDR was an indisputably popular president — he had just finished destroying the hapless Alf Landon in the 1936 election — his plan proved to be a severe political miscalculation. Mainstream newspapers were almost unanimous in their condemnation of the idea; making matters worse, the plan was hailed as a great idea by the Nazi press in Germany. The public sent thousands of telegrams to Congress expressing disgust. Even Roosevelt's own vice president, John Nance Garner, didn't approve — as Shesol writes, when the plan was announced in Congress, Garner "stood in the doorway of the cloakroom, holding his nose and making, for all to see, a thumbs-down gesture."

Conventional wisdom holds that the plan was obviated, and then defeated, after the court ruled in favor of a state minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish — Justice Owen Roberts' apparent change of heart became known as "the switch in time that saved nine." Shesol explains that this wasn't exactly the case, though; his fascinating interpretations of the effects of the ultimately failed court-packing plan definitely aren't what you learned in your high school history class. You might wish you'd had Shesol as a teacher, though — he breathes new life into an old fight with intelligence and excitement, and the result is one of the most interesting books about the Supreme Court in years.

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