Explain why FDR's "court packing" plan failed.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In November 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection to a second term as president by a huge majority, largely because of New Deal legislation enacted to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. However, during his first term the conservative Supreme Court had begun striking down many of his New...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In November 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection to a second term as president by a huge majority, largely because of New Deal legislation enacted to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. However, during his first term the conservative Supreme Court had begun striking down many of his New Deal measures so that some of FDR's key programs were in jeopardy. In response, FDR had new legislation drafted that would curb the court's power to stop the New Deal by adding younger and more liberal appointees.

The new proposed law was called the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. The new bill used the advanced ages of the judges as criteria for reformation. It stipulated that for every Supreme Court judge that did not retire by the age of 70, FDR (and future presidents) could appoint and add a new judge to the court up to a maximum of six. As an excuse, FDR claimed that the age of the present judges had caused them to become overburdened with work. This legislation became known as the "court-packing plan," as FDR's intention was to pack the court with judges favorable to his New Deal initiatives.

When the proposed legislation became public, it generated abrupt and overwhelming response. Opponents argued that it would upset the balance of power among the three branches of government. Proponents insisted that under the Supreme Court as it stood, a few stubborn judges could subvert the will of the people, the president, and Congress. Although opinion was fairly evenly split, the opponents of the bill were much more strident.

Ultimately, opponents of the bill prevailed, and it never even made it as far as a Congressional vote. Congressional, judicial, and popular opinion saw it as a blatant power grab by FDR and an overreaching of his authority. The Supreme Court justices insisted they were caught up with their work, and many saw FDR's ploy as being blatantly disrespectful to the elderly. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Henry F. Ashurst, held the bill up for 165 days. The bill's strongest proponent in the Senate, Joseph T. Robinson, died.

What seemed to become a deciding factor in the demise of the bill was a shifting of opinion by some of the justices on the Supreme Court. New Deal legislation began to be declared Constitutional. In particular, one justice, Owen Roberts, switched position and became more pro-New Deal. This along with a shift of opinion of other court members, became known as "the switch in time that saved nine." So FDR lost the battle for the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, but he got what he wanted in the long term. After this prolonged battle for the bill's passage, New Deal legislation had a much easier time making it past the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In 1936, Roosevelt won reelection in a landslide victory, gaining the electoral votes of every state but Maine and Vermont. This reinforced him in believing the public was strongly behind his New Deal program (which it was) and steeled his determination to get his legislation passed. One stumbling block, however, was the Supreme Court, which was conservative and had tended to strike down New Deal legislation as unconstitutional.

In response, FDR proposed expanding the Supreme Court beyond the nine justices mandated in the Constitution. He wanted to appoint one extra justice for every justice over 70, up to six extra justices. This way, he could pack the court with people sympathetic to his programs.

This plan backfired, however, as the public and Congress perceived it as overstepping presidential boundaries and disrupting the system of checks and balances that prevented any one branch of government from amassing too much power. The proposal hurt FDR politically and gave ammunition to his opponents to portray him as a would-be dictator. However, it is also credited by some with inspiring the Supreme Court to become more supportive of Roosevelt's legislation. For example, the Court upheld the federal government in getting involved in labor-management relations through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which a steel company had contested was unconstitutional.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Roosevelt proposed to increase the number of Justices on the United States Supreme Court out of frustration at a succession of Court rulings against certain aspects of the New Deal such as the NRA. FDR has just won a landslide election victory, one of the biggest in American electoral history, and with his Democratic Party controlling Congress, he had every reason to expect that his court-packing plans would succeed.

However, FDR suffered a humiliating reversal in his efforts to obtain a Supreme Court that would be more amenable to upholding the constitutionality of the New Deal. His Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 earned widespread opposition, not just among Roosevelt's usual enemies but even among those normally sympathetic to his policy agenda.

It seemed to many that the president was overstepping the bounds of his authority. Opponents of the Bill argued that Roosevelt's proposals would spell the end of the judiciary's independence, making it easier for the government to ride roughshod over the Constitution. At a time when dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were striding the world stage it seemed that Roosevelt was following them in style, if not in substance, by concentrating too much power in his own hands.

In any case, the Court was becoming less conservative, less hostile to the kind of radical social legislation being put forward by the Roosevelt Administration. With the imminent retirement of Willis Van Deventer, one of the so-called "Four Horsemen," the most conservative Justices on the Supreme Court, there seemed less reason for Congressmen and Senators to throw their support behind the Bill. And so FDR's audacious attempt to reconstruct the highest court in the land came to nothing.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan failed because it appeared as though the president was trying to overstep his constitutional limits. The conservatives of the court struck down some pieces of New Deal legislation; Roosevelt wanted to select his own judges who would rule in his favor. Many opponents of the New Deal led the outcry against the court-packing scheme, claiming that Roosevelt was taking too much power and that he would soon make the Supreme Court a mouthpiece for the administration. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes led the fight from the Supreme Court, calling into question several New Deal agencies. Some members of Congress were also upset by the Roosevelt strategy because they were not consulted first.

While the general public initially favored Roosevelt his efforts, the press proclaimed that Roosevelt was becoming too powerful. Due to pressure from Congress and the media, Roosevelt backed down from his court-packing scheme. The courts gradually became more liberal as Roosevelt was able to replace judges. While the New Deal would not be as strong as it would be during the First Hundred Days, much of the legislation would remain intact throughout Roosevelt's second term.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

President Roosevelt's planned to "pack" the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court kept striking down New Deal legislation.  The plan failed for two reasons.  First, it seemed to many like an attempt to take too much power for the presidency.  It seemed as if FDR was trying to infringe upon the constitutional powers of the Supreme Court.  Second, the Supreme Court changed its mind and stopped opposing the New Deal.  When the Supreme Court did this, it took away any real reason for many people to support the idea of "packing" the Court.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team