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FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal

FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal

by James F. Simon

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By the author of acclaimed books on the bitter clashes between Jefferson and Chief Justice Marshall on the shaping of the nation’s constitutional future, and between Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney over slavery, secession, and the presidential war powers. Roosevelt and Chief Justice Hughes's fight over the New Deal was the most critical struggle between an


By the author of acclaimed books on the bitter clashes between Jefferson and Chief Justice Marshall on the shaping of the nation’s constitutional future, and between Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney over slavery, secession, and the presidential war powers. Roosevelt and Chief Justice Hughes's fight over the New Deal was the most critical struggle between an American president and a chief justice in the twentieth century.

The confrontation threatened the New Deal in the middle of the nation’s worst depression. The activist president bombarded the Democratic Congress with a fusillade of legislative remedies that shut down insolvent banks, regulated stocks, imposed industrial codes, rationed agricultural production, and employed a quarter million young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps. But the legislation faced constitutional challenges by a conservative bloc on the Court determined to undercut the president. Chief Justice Hughes often joined the Court’s conservatives to strike down major New Deal legislation.

Frustrated, FDR proposed a Court-packing plan. His true purpose was to undermine the ability of the life-tenured Justices to thwart his popular mandate. Hughes proved more than a match for Roosevelt in the ensuing battle. In grudging admiration for Hughes, FDR said that the Chief Justice was the best politician in the country. Despite the defeat of his plan, Roosevelt never lost his confidence and, like Hughes, never ceded leadership. He outmaneuvered isolationist senators, many of whom had opposed his Court-packing plan, to expedite aid to Great Britain as the Allies hovered on the brink of defeat. He then led his country through World War II.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This dramatic history illuminates the uniquely American conflict between constitutional reverence and popular politics. New York Law School prof Simon (Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney) spotlights the struggle between a conservative Court under Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, which struck down key New Deal measures in the 1930s, and a frustrated President Franklin Roosevelt, who counterattacked with a proposal to “pack” the Court with sympathetic appointees. Much of the book is a high-contrast dual biography of the two men—Roosevelt the impatient pragmatist, brushing aside legal restraints on federal action to drag the country out of the Depression; Hughes the Republican jurist, devoted to principle and precedent. Yet Simon’s colorful profiles show how much these adversaries shared—Hughes made his name investigating corporate malfeasance and supported civil rights, labor reforms, and welfare programs—and how both contributed to a revolution that demolished outdated constitutional dogmas while preserving constitutional forms. With the present-day Court poised to rule on health care reform amid controversies over the government’s power to address economic turmoil, Simon’s account of a very similar era is both trenchant and timely. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Feb. 7)
From the Publisher
“A spectacular book, brilliantly conceived and executed – an illuminating window into the question of the ages: Who has the power? The President, Congress or the Supreme Court?”

—Bob Woodward

“Franklin Roosevelt once called Charles Evans Hughes the finest politician in the United States. In this marvelously written, meticulously researched study, James F. Simon demonstrates why that was so. He also shows that except for their brief confrontation in 1937, in which Hughes prevailed, these two former governors of New York shared a deep affection for one another. Together they led the United States into the modern era.”

—Jean Edward Smith, author of FDR and John Marshall: Definer of a Nation

“The story of this relationship, as historically significant as any between a President and Chief Justice, is brilliantly unfurled by James Simon. Fresh, often moving, and hugely readable, it's a textbook case of statesmanship - and politics - at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."

—Richard N. Smith, author of The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney:

“James F. Simon has written an exciting and notable book where Abraham Lincoln and Roger B. Taney, the president and the chief justice, two men of the highest intelligence and passionate judgment, argued the future of this democratic republic.”

Joseph J. Ellis, The New York Times Book Review on What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall:
“A study of the political and legal struggle between these icons of American history….A major contribution….A model of the narrative history written by someone who knows the law.”

Library Journal
In this joint biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes, who served as chief justice from 1930 to 1941, Simon (Martin Professor of Law, New York Law Sch.) thoroughly examines the personal and professional lives of both figures, focusing on the Supreme Court's opposition to the New Deal in its early years and Roosevelt's attempts to circumvent it. The court-packing plan that Roosevelt proposed would have increased the size of the court from nine to as many as 15 justices and mandated a retirement age of 70, which would have allowed the President to appoint justices sympathetic to the New Deal. Hughes and the conservatives on the court opposed the New Deal's regulation of private business, declaring the National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional. As the economy worsened and public opinion turned against the Court, Hughes attempted to compromise with Roosevelt to prevent him from meddling in the Court. Simon details these efforts, along with the key retirements that ended the court-packing controversy. VERDICT A well-executed study of a tumultuous period in American history, this book will appeal to enthusiasts of New Deal and Supreme Court history and to casual readers of biographies. [See Prepub Alert, 8/26/11.]—Becky Kennedy, Atlanta-Fulton P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
An instructive, vigorous account of FDR's attempt at court-packing, and the chief justice who weathered the storm with equanimity. Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) isn't one of the more studied justices, though he presided over the Supreme Court during the historic New Deal era, and enjoyed a long, fascinating career, as Simon (Emeritus/New York Law School, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, 2006, etc.) develops in depth. An adored only son of a minister who expected his son to pursue the ministry, Hughes went instead into law, eventually setting up a lucrative practice on Wall Street. He first gained an intellectually rigorous, high-minded reputation by taking on the utilities industry in New York; courted by the Republican party, he was elected governor, and first appointed to the Supreme Court by President Taft in 1910, only to resign to run for president in 1916, a campaign lost in favor of Woodrow Wilson. After serving as Secretary of State under President Harding, he was reappointed to the highest bench by President Hoover, this time as Chief Justice in 1930. Yet he proved to be no cardboard pro-business model, and when FDR was elected amid economic mayhem during the Great Depression, the court was split. FDR's emergency legislature during his 100 first days was challenged by the conservatives, precipitating one of FDR's worst blunders: a court reform proposal sent to Congress that would increase the number of justices and force retirement for the septuagenarians--as most of them were. "Shrieks of outrage" greeted the dictatorial proposal, which was resoundingly rejected by the Senate. However, Simon looks carefully at the change in court direction with the threats of reform, along with Hughes' own sense of consternation and later important decisions in the protection of civil rights--e.g., Gaines v. Canada. A fair assessment of Hughes' eminent career and an accessible, knowledgeable consideration of the important lawsuits of the era.

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Simon & Schuster
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6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

James F. Simon is the Martin Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at New York Law School. He is the author of seven previous books on American history, law, and politics, including What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States, and lives with his wife in West Nyack, New York.

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