FDR and the Supreme Court Packing Plan III

Program Information

Series: A Moment in Time
Duration: 00:04:11
Year Produced: 2009

With a hostile Supreme Court majority, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced the real possibility that the New Deal would be destroyed.

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Lead: With a hostile Supreme Court majority, Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced the real possibility that the New Deal would be destroyed.

Tag: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: Under the United States Constitution, it is given to the U.S. Supreme Court the responsibility to interpret provisions of the Constitution and judge the validity of laws passed by state and federal governments. In 1935 and 1936 the Supreme Court began taking apart the New Deal. At first, the damage was only theoretical. The court upheld, but only barely, Roosevelt's 1933 termination of gold convertibility.

Three months later important parts of President Roosevelt's program began crashing down. The Railroad Retirement Act was nullified. In May 1935 the court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act because it exceeded the reach of Congress' power. Then on a single day that same month, "Black Monday" in the view of the administration, the court set aside the National Recovery Administration, struck down the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act, and denied Roosevelt the right to remove a member of a regulatory commission without congressional approval. It went on and on and on into 1936 with one act after another falling under the judicial blade of the court majority. Between 1789 and 1865 the court had declared only two acts of Congress unconstitutional. Between 1934 and 1936 it had struck down 13. President Roosevelt was deeply concerned and began to plan how he might circumvent the "nine old men" on the Supreme Court.

He considered three choices. First, he could back an amendment to the Constitution taking the power to invalidate Congress' laws away from the court; second, he could back another amendment specifically giving Congress the power to pass the New Deal laws currently in dispute; or third, he could pack the court with additional judges which would give him the majority. The amendment route was considered too risky and time consuming. He decided to pack the court. Three months after his second election by a landslide in November 1936, Roosevelt brought the plan to Congress, but in doing so, he made probably his most serious political error as president. Next time: A Switch in Time, Saves Nine.

At the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.