Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his first presidential term riding a tidal wave of public support. In the 1932 election, he crushed dour incumbent Herbert Hoover and carried the Democrats to a solid majority in Congress. Following his inauguration, legislators gave Roosevelt unprecedented authority to remake the American economy. In the first 100 days of his presidency, Roosevelt signed 15 major pieces of legislation designed to relieve the suffering of millions and extricate America from the Great Depression. The New Deal era had begun.
But by 1936, the New Deal had begun to falter. Conservative businessmen, who found themselves heavily taxed and regulated by the new legislation, pushed a string of challenges to Roosevelt's programs through the courts. On January 6, the Supreme Court made a ruling that struck at the very heart of Roosevelt's reforms. FDR's response to the ruling would irreparably damage the New Deal.
In a six to three ruling, the court invalidated FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act, which provided subsidies to farmers who decreased production of certain commodities. The Court ruled that the processing tax which funded the subsidies was unconstitutional, and that the states, not the federal government, had the power to regulate agriculture.
Roosevelt realized that if the court applied this states-rights reasoning across the board, the New Deal would crumble. The Depression, FDR believed, could only be defeated by sweeping federal reforms of the economy -- changes cobbled together in often inefficient state legislatures would not be enough.
This was not the first time the court had ruled against Roosevelt. In May, 1935, the court had struck down the regulatory business codes of the National Recovery Administration. The decision infuriated Roosevelt, but it was not altogether unexpected -- the speed with which legislation was drafted during FDR's first term had resulted in a complicated and unwieldy bill which proved extremely difficult to enforce.
In the AAA ruling, however, Roosevelt saw an ominous conservative turn on the part of the judiciary. And with the Supreme Court scheduled to rule on challenges to the Wagner Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Social Security Act, FDR knew the New Deal was in danger.
By early 1936 it seemed as if public opinion might have swayed the Court in Roosevelt's direction. In February, the Court ruled in the TVA suit, this time favoring Roosevelt. But the reconciliation didn't last. In May 1936, the court struck down the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act. In June, the Court invalidated a New York State minimum wage law.
In November 1936 voters gave Roosevelt a second overwhelming mandate at the polls. His New Deal policies, constitutional or not, had put millions of Americans back to work and given people hope. Now, mandate in hand, FDR would move to challenge the Supreme Court threat to the New Deal.
On February 5, 1937, with little or no warning, FDR announced what would become known as his "court packing" plan. Citing the inability of the federal courts to deal with an overwhelming caseload, he proposed judicial reforms, including the addition of one justice to the Supreme Court for every one who did not retire by age 70-1/2, with a maximum five justices added.
It was an uncharacteristic political mistake for the usually astute Roosevelt. His plan to influence the Court provoked outrage nationwide. Many perceived it as an attempt to rig the American judiciary system and give the executive branch almost dictatorial power. In a public speech in March, Roosevelt managed to turn American opinion his way, but when the Supreme Court reported that it had no problem keeping up with its caseload, support for his plan declined.
As Roosevelt worked on behalf of his "court-packing" plan, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor several times, further weakening the President's arguments for court reform. On March 29, the Court upheld a Washington State minimum wage law. In May, the Court upheld the Social Security Act. When Joseph Robinson, Roosevelt's last significant ally in the court-packing scheme died in July, the plan died too.
The attempt to influence the Supreme Court was one of the worst episodes of Roosevelt's presidential career. For the first time since his election, FDR had been publicly humiliated and utterly defeated -- in a battle he need not have fought.
Ironically, time would do what Roosevelt's court packing plan could not. By 1941, four Supreme Court justices had retired -- two more had died. In total, seven of the nine justices on the court were Roosevelt appointees.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?