CRF Blog

Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

by Bill Hayes

In the 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional pieces of legislation from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1937, fresh from his landslide re-election, Roosevelt proposed “reforming” the court in what became known as his “court-packing” plan. The plan ultimately failed to pass Congress, but in the midst of the fight, one member of the court decided to switch sides (the famous “a switch in time saves nine”). And the 5–4 conservative majority on the court turned into a 5–4 liberal majority.

We have a Bill of Rights in Action lesson on this titled FDR Tries to “Pack” the Supreme Court.

A recent book has been published on the subject: Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court. Written by Jeff Shesol, the book drew high praise in the New York Times Book Review:

Shesol also draws attention to a more mundane but nevertheless considerable factor in the shift of the court. In 1937 Roosevelt supported, and Congress approved, a bill to assure retired justices that they would continue to receive their judicial salaries even after retirement. The absence of such benefits had deterred some aged justices from retiring; once the pensions were assured, several of them resigned.

Supreme Power is an impressive and engaging book — an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written. Even readers who already know the outcome will find it hard not to feel the suspense that surrounded the battle, so successfully does Shesol recreate the atmosphere of this great controversy. There are many ways to explain what become known as the “Constitutional revolution of 1937,” but Shesol’s book is — at least for now — the most thorough account of this dramatic and still contested event.

 Below is a short interview with author Sheshol. Booktv has an hour-long interview with him on its site.