Reshaping the Supreme Court

President Roosevelt's attempt to reshape the Supreme Court landed short and drew criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. "It was a recognition on his part that he had lost some measure of power," says David Ginsburg, a member of FDR's administration.


David McCullough [voice-over]: To save the New Deal, Roosevelt proposed a radical piece of legislation -- a bill to give him the power to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court and outnumber his opponents. On Capitol Hill, critics argued that Roosevelt's bill challenged the Constitution itself.

Sen. Frederick Van Nuys, (D), Indiana: I shall not be a party to breaking down the checks and balances of the Constitution.

Rep. Samuel B. Pettengill, (D), Indiana: A packed jury, a packed court and a stuffed ballot box are all on the same moral plane. This is more power than a good man should want or a bad man should have.

Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, (R), Michigan: This is a non-partisan battle to preserve an independent Supreme Court.

David McCullough [voice-over]: Determined to win votes for his court plan, Roosevelt was now in the congressional fight of his life. He dangled promises of federal projects, hinted at judicial appointments, threatened to withdraw patronage. At a picnic for Democratic congressmen, he turned on all his charm. This time it didn't work. On July 20th, he asked his vice president, Jack Garner, what his chances were with Congress. "Do you want it with the bark on or off, Captain?" Garner replied. "The rough way." "All right, you're beat. You haven't got the votes."

David Ginsburg: And the price that he paid was very high. It was a loss of confidence on the part of the country. It was a recognition by his opponents in politics that they could beat him. It was a recognition on his part that he had lost some measure of power.

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  • NEH

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  • NEH