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Franklin D. Roosevelt's Bold Move In 1937 To Reshape the Supreme Court

Legislation Didn't Pass But Court Scared Into Approving New Deal

Offered here is a complete February 5, 1937 newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat, which headlines Franklin D. Roosevelt's court-packing scheme to assure that the Supreme Court would approve all his New Deal legislation of questionable constitutionality which had previously been rejected. The newspaper article accepts President Roosevelt's spin that it was an effort to eliminate court delays rather than a blatant power grab. The front page article does, however, accurately summarize the plan, as shown below:

In his 1993 book Roosevelt biographer Kenneth S. Davis said commentators of the 1930s described the battle between Roosevelt and the Supreme Court as "the gravest constitutional crisis since the Civil War." Below is an example of  how academic historians typically treat FDR's court-packing scheme: it was a political disaster, but thank heavens it worked in changing the Court's interpretation of the Constitution.

The court-packing scheme was a political disaster. Conservatives and liberals alike denounced Roosevelt for attacking the separation of powers and critics accused him of trying to become a dictator. Fortunately, the Court itself ended the crisis by shifting ground. In two separate cases the Court upheld the Wagner Act and approved a Washington state minimum wage law, furnishing proof that it had softened its opposition to the New Deal.

Yet Roosevelt remained too obsessed with the battle to realize he had won the war. He lobbied for the court-packing bill for several months, squandering his strength on a struggle that had long since become a political embarrassment. In the end, the only part of the president's plan to gain congressional approval was the pension program. Once it passed, Justice Willis Van Devanter, the most obstinate New Deal opponent on the Court, resigned. By 1941 Roosevelt had named five justices to the Supreme Court. Few legacies of the president's leadership proved more important, for the new "Roosevelt Court" significantly expanded the government's role in the economy and in civil liberties.

The changes wrought in Constitutional interpretation after Roosevelt's court-packing scheme and subsequent appointments was truly revolutionary, it completely changed the interpretation of the Constitution accepted from 1787 thorough 1937 and substituted a new jurisprudence that greatly increased federal government power and limited the role of state governments. The newspaper offered here heralds the beginning of that revolution.

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