Court packing is that act of stacking the courts with members of your own party in order to ensure that the vote of the court will always be in your favor. Encouraged by the triumphs of his first term in office, FDR became over zealous and aggressively campaigned for his power oriented court packing plan, ultimately causing the greatest failure of his second term. Towards the end of his second term, FDR was on a mission to get his more liberal legislation, the New Deal, passed. However, the Supreme Court was holding him back.
Most of the court members at this point in time were strict conservatives who left no wiggle room between the lines of the constitution. For this reason, they kept deeming his proposed laws unconstitutional and with three unanimous decisions, the court foiled the New Deal. President Roosevelt was determined to find a quick fix to get his laws passed through the court without making any constitutional amendments. His solution, simply put, was exactly what was previously defined as court packing.
His plan suggested that for every justice over the age of seventy, an additional justice would be appointed if that justice were to refuse to resign. If a sitting justice were to retire, resign, or die once the new justices were placed on the court, that justice could not be replaced with a new appointment. 1 The number of Supreme Court justices could never exceed fifteen. District Court judges would be constantly moving around in the lower courts and a proctor would be designated to report to the Chief Justice weekly. This way, the entire court-packing scheme would be cloaked in what would be perceived as judicial reform.
Additionally, FDR wanted the American people to make him out to be a hero after his plan was made public. He thought that Americans would believe that he was noble for helping out those “poor old geezers” because those old fellas cant make decisions on their own. The bill went through twelve drafts in total with many minor changes throughout its development and was announced on February 5, 1937. 2 There are several reasons as to why President Roosevelt thought he needed this court-packing plan passed as well as some valid defenses for its validity.
First, Roosevelt believed that the court was the root of the problem, rather than what commonly thought to be the constitution. Therefore, proposing an amendment that would grant congress additional authority could have been viewed as agreeing that the Court’s decisions not to pass the New Deal had been the right course of action. FDR was against the option to amend the retirement age for justices, amend the imposed supermajority voting requirements on the Court, or give Congress the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions.
In addition, he believed that state legislatures were controlled by conservative ideals and would reject any resolution that contained an amendment. This left Roosevelt’s administration to conclude that the only solution was to raise the number of justices and make sure that they held the same values and goals as the liberal president. 1 In on of FDR’s famous fireside radio chats, he spoke to the people about his plan and began to create a defense for it; “I made it clear that my chief concern was with the objectivenamely, a modernized judiciary that would look at modern problems through modern glasses.
The exact kind of legislative method to accomplish that objective was not important. I was willing to accept any method proposed which would accomplish that ultimate objective-constitutionally and quickly. ” 3 He upheld his ideology by telling the public that he made this plan to reduce the courts abundance of power as well as make it more modern because times were changing. This defense worked a time and helped to gain the public’s initial support. FDR also thought that the court system was flawed and that was another reason why he had to fix it with his court-packing plan.
The court was clearly divided in its views. Four of the justices, dubbed “Four Horsemen” were extreme right wing conservatives. It was these judges who shut down Roosevelt’s precious New Deal. Three other justices were extreme left wing liberals and they were the ones who wanted to give the New Deal a shot. There were two moderate judges, but one would frequently vote with the liberals leaving the last to break the tie. 3 By putting more justices on the court, the court wouldn’t be as divided and the votes would be more unanimous.
As a result of his proposition, the court changed many its values in order to gain approval and get public to oppose FDR’s plan, but President Roosevelt feared the court would just as easily reverse itself again once the pressure was gone Numerous factors contributed to the failure of the courtpacking plan such as FDR’s arrogance, secrecy, and silence, as well as the court’s counter actions. Roosevelt had just won his second term and was radiating confidence. He viewed his victory as permission from the people to continue with his program. 2 This newfound confidence would ultimately cause his downfall.
He began to be arrogant and stubborn. As professor James Patterson put it, FDR “remained serenely confident, refusing even to discuss the possibility of compromise”. 1 His reelection granted him even more power that got to his head. He would not listen to any suggestions and was hidebound in his thought that the only logical solution was his court-packing plan. He was misguided by his hubris because he thought he had more approval from the people than he actually did. When the bill was undergoing its process, the whole operation was kept under raps.
He planned to have his solution be a secret until it was complete and ready for the public eye and only then would he allow the big reveal. The secrecy he used to plan caused a ton of opposition on its own. It made court packing the utmost thing that people noticed and also gave the notion that the President was cunning and fraudulent. Deceit is not a quality one looks for in a leader. Furthermore, he ignored the people’s response. He was blind to the signs of opposition. Initially, he didn’t address those who opposed the bill. He just assumed they would talk it out. This silence led to even more opposition.
Once he discussed it in his fireside chat, it was already too late. 2 During this time, the courts ruled in many cases favoring the Wagner Act. It showed the public that the courts could be liberal and put the imminence for replacements on the court into question. In a unanimous decision the court upheld the Railway Labor Act. In Wright v. Vinton Branch, the Frazier-Lemke Act was upheld. Moreover, the court reversed Adkins and Tipaldo and upheld a federal tax on firearms. Ultimately, the urgency for new judges would be thwarted when the court passed the Social Security Act.
The court agreed that the issue of unemployment was so impending that the government should have the power to regulate it; and idea that the extreme liberalists would agree with. 4 Because of these decisions it was made clear that the two moderate judges were now allied with liberals, making FDR’s arguments pleading for a more liberal court unnecessary, thereby invalidating his court packing plan. To top it all off, Van Devanter, the most conservative justice and leader on the court resigned, again making the shift from right to left.
Every one of these actions contributed to the failure of Roosevelt’s plan, because they negated the core of his claims for its purpose. The American people saw right through the president’s phony reasoning. They knew he didn’t pity those poor old men and that he was just looking for a way to get more control over the courts. Some went as far to say that he was becoming a dictator and ignoring the checks and balance system. They understood that the whole ideology behind judicial review was to avoid one branch of government becoming too powerful and that is precisely what FDR was doing. Nobody fell for his “saving the court” act.