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President Franklin D. Roosevelt swept to reelection in November 1936 in an unprecedented landslide. He won forty-six of the forty-eight states (losing Maine and Vermont), with 523 electoral votes to Republican challenger Alfred Landon's 8. Democrats controlled 80 of the 96 seats in the Senate, and more than 300 of the 400 seats in the House. The country had spoken, loudly endorsing Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Roosevelt had said nothing about the Court during his reelection campaign, but he was incensed by the rulings striking down New Deal initiatives and was determined to take action against the Court. On February 5, 1937, he sent Congress a bombshell in the form of a “Court reform” proposal.

If implemented, the plan would allow the judiciary to “function in accord with modern necessities,” Roosevelt said. [1] Citing a supposedly “overcrowded” Court docket and delays in issuing decisions, the president maintained that the Court was weighed down by the justices who were over seventy years of age. “Modern complexities call for a constant infusion of new blood in the courts,” he said. [2] Part of his proposal was that the president should be authorized to name one new justice for each justice over age seventy who refused to retire. Complexities aside, the public and the political establishment had no difficulty seeing that Roosevelt's desire for “new blood” on the Court was not a true reform. His idea was immediately dubbed a “Court-packing” plan. Roosevelt's scheme to remake the Court by enlarging it met fierce resistance even among his Democratic supporters in Congress. It proved to be an unusual political blunder by a normally astute master of politics. Over time, however, Roosevelt succeeded in his larger goal of changing the Court, even though his “Court reform” bill died in Congress.

 

Document Citation
1 David G. Savage, The New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Conservative Revival: Introduction, in Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court 51 (5th ed., 2011), http://library.cqpress.com/scc/gct5v1-1179-57457-2234320.
Document ID: gct5v1-1179-57457-2234320
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/scc/gct5v1-1179-57457-2234320