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...
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.