America's federal government is divided into three branches by the Constitution. Article I delineates the powers of the legislature, Article II lays out the powers of the president and Article III offers only general guidelines for the judiciary and does not expressly determine the number of justices on the nation's highest judicial body, the Supreme Court. It took the Judiciary Act of 1789, passed by Congress, to limit the number of justices on the court to six, one chief justice and five associates. While the number fluctuated from seven to ten to eight throughout the first half of the 1800s, the Judiciary Act of 1869 settled on nine justices.
When Franklin Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1933 he inherited a country in the depths of the Great Depression with unemployment at an unprecedented twenty-five percent. His "New Deal" prescribed a series of programs to help alleviate the pain of the economic downturn. Conservatives on the court, however, believed the Roosevelt's programs were too heavy handed in their interference in the economy and they struck down as unconstitutional some of Roosevelt's most important reforms.
Since the Constitution did not explicitly limit the number of justices on the court, Roosevelt, in his unpopular court packing scheme, proposed increasing the number of justices to as many as fifteen. Because the president holds the power to appoint justices, Roosevelt was ready to name justices who would vote in favor of his plans for the nation. An immediate outcry against the idea was led by Republicans. Even a proponent of the New Deal, Senator Hiram Johnson from California, labeled the court packing scheme one step on the "road to fascism." a Gallup Poll revealed that over fifty percent of Americans were against the idea.
Ironically, a few weeks before Roosevelt's plan was revealed, the nine judges met privately and agreed not to oppose some of the New Deal's most important laws including the minimum wage, protection for labor unions and the advent of Social Security. Roosevelt's court packing plan then quickly disintegrated and the court remained at nine.