FDR v. Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy

Overview

The fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court has special resonance today as we debate the limits of presidential authority.

The Supreme Court has generated many dramatic stories, none more so than the one that began on February 5, 1937. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, confident in his recent landslide reelection and frustrated by a Court that had overturned much of his New Deal legislation, stunned Congress and the American people...

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FDR v. The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy

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Overview

The fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court has special resonance today as we debate the limits of presidential authority.

The Supreme Court has generated many dramatic stories, none more so than the one that began on February 5, 1937. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, confident in his recent landslide reelection and frustrated by a Court that had overturned much of his New Deal legislation, stunned Congress and the American people with his announced intention to add six new justices. Even though the now-famous “court packing” scheme divided his own party, almost everyone assumed FDR would get his way and reverse the Court’s conservative stance and long-standing laissez-faire support of corporate America, so persuasive and powerful had he become. I n the end, however, a Supreme Court justice, Owen Roberts, who cast off precedent in the interests of principle, and a Democratic senator from Montana, Burton K. Wheeler, led an effort that turned an apparently unstoppable proposal into a humiliating rejection—and preserved the Constitution.

FDR v. Constitution is the colorful story behind 168 days that riveted—and reshaped—the nation. Burt Solomon skillfully recounts the major New Deal initiatives of FDR’s first term and the rulings that overturned them, chronicling as well the politics and personalities on the Supreme Court—from the brilliant octogenarian Louis Brandeis, to the politically minded chief justice, Charles Evans Hughes, to the mercurial Roberts, whose “switch in time saved nine.” T he ebb and flow of one of the momentous set pieces in American history placed the inner workings of the nation’s capital on full view as the three branches of our government squared off.

Ironically for FDR, the Court that emerged from this struggle shifted on its own to a liberal attitude, where it would largely remain for another seven decades. Placing the greatest miscalculation of FDR’s career in context past and present, Solomon offers a reminder of the perennial temptation toward an imperial presidency that the founders had always feared.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An engrossing story that hints at the fragility as much as the triumph of democracy.” - Kirkus

“ Painstakingly researched study”- Publishers Weekly

“[A] lively historical narrative… a fluid portrayal of the court-packing episode that will appeal to history buffs.” - Booklist

Publishers Weekly

During his first term as president, FDR became frustrated by a Supreme Court with a majority of Republican appointees that routinely ruled unconstitutional various New Deal initiatives in narrow 5 to 4 votes. Most particularly, the Court crippled the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933-the very heart of FDR's prescription for economic recovery. As Solomon (The Washington Century: Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation's Capital) shows in this compelling and painstakingly researched study, after being re-elected by a large plurality in 1936, FDR attempted to revive a long-dead proposal, arguing that all Supreme Court justices 70 years or older either retire or the president be allowed to appoint a tandem judge to serve side-by-side with the older justice. This formula would have allowed FDR to shift the Court's balance of power. Solomon eloquently reveals how the proposal-hotly debated in Congress and characterized as a direct challenge to the fundamental principles of the Founders-eventually resulted in a stunning and humiliating defeat for FDR, sharply dividing members of his own party in the process. Photos. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Addressing Franklin Delano Roosevelt's plan to expand the number of Supreme Court justices from nine to 15 in order to ensure the Court's support of New Deal legislation, Solomon (The Washington Century) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Court, the White House, and a country suffering from the Great Depression. Roosevelt was at odds with a conservative Court, one that routinely struck down his economic legislation as unconstitutional. After his landslide reelection victory in 1936, he conceived the plan that came to be known as court-packing. The author, a correspondent for National Journal, examines every aspect of the court-packing fight, from the public who supported Roosevelt's efforts to enact legislation that would help it, to the justices who opposed any changes to the Court. Solomon also discusses the political scene as the three branches of government engaged with one another, vividly describing the personalities involved. He offers a broad view of Depression-era politics and society while effectively explaining an event that still affects the Court today. Recommended for all libraries.
—Becky Kennedy

Kirkus Reviews
How a high-stakes 1937 power struggle transformed America's judiciary and government. In the mold of Anthony Lewis, National Journal correspondent Solomon (The Washington Century, 2004, etc.) conveys the excitement and significance of a core battle over the U.S. Constitution. While he gives little attention to the structure and mechanics of national government, he neatly captures the political dynamic of interacting personalities. In the depth of the Great Depression, the Supreme Court remained tethered to the laissez faire ideology that had fueled the boom times of the '20s. However, the Court was deeply divided. Four staunch conservatives, dubbed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, faced three consistent liberals; Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and unpredictable Owen Roberts held the swing votes. In 1933, Roberts sided with the liberals to end an era of judicial activism in which the Court had aggressively and inhumanely protected property rights. In 1935, he reversed course and joined the Four Horsemen to overturn the Railroad Retirement Act. Weeks later, the Court threw out the National Industrial Recovery Act, a centerpiece of New Deal legislation. Roberts continued to combine with the conservative judges in 1936, bringing the New Deal to its knees. Following a landslide reelection that year, President Roosevelt and Attorney General Homer Cummings plotted revenge. FDR announced a plan in 1937 to expand the Supreme Court to possibly 15 judges, and most New Dealers rejoiced. But Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, a previous Roosevelt loyalist, stood firm against this undemocratic plan to "pack" the Supreme Court with liberals. At a crucial moment of political impasse, Robertsswitched sides and swung the Court behind the New Deal. Roosevelt's main rationale for reform was removed, and the nine-man bench was preserved. Having failed to dominate the judicial branch, Roosevelt was similarly unsuccessful in removing conservative Democrats from the senate in 1938. These twin defeats perhaps knocked some moderation into the president. Certainly, the 1937 constitutional fight revolutionized the federal judiciary, which entered the '40s emboldened and independent. An engrossing story that hints at the fragility as much as the triumph of democracy. Agent: Gail Ross/Gail Ross Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802715890
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 12/23/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Burt Solomon has written about the nation’s capital and its history for three decades. A longtime correspondent for National Journal, he is the author of The Washington Century: Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation’s Capital and Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball, named one of the twenty best books of the millennium by GQ. He lives inside the Capital Beltway.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    great book

    This was a great book about FDR and his court packing scheme. The book also included pictures which I always enjoy since it enhances the whole experience. Burt Solomon focused on the court packing scheme of FDR and the people who were involved with it both on FDR's side and the justices involved.

    This is not extremely in depth about the whole court packing scheme but it is a good read for anyone who wants to learn more of this one snapshot in history.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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