3.1: Packing the Court


3.1   FDR and the Cartoonists

In addition to the work below, browse through this digital source, the FDR Cartoon Archive.  Select a cartoon that you find especially interesting, evocative, perplexing, annoying (or another verb of your choice).  PRINT IT (large enough to put on the doc cam, please), and bring it to class. Be able to talk about the image:  date created, symbols used, references to events or acts, etc.     If you wish to be more adventurous in your cartoon search, you may want to search local newspapers or Digital Public Library of America  —  dp.la

You will turn your cartoon in at the end of class.  It should be headed with your name, team number, and cite the source (URL, plus original publication information, such as newspaper title and date.)

3.1  Packing the Court

NOTE:  This is a two-day activity. (You won’t find 3.2 on the website. ) On the first day we’ll talk about the cartoons and you will work in teams to sort through the documents you have.  On day two, you’ll work to develop an explanation for it all and attempt to set the “Court Packing” in perspective.  

 Guiding Question:

On November 3, 1936, President Roosevelt was swept back into office by what was, at the time, the largest landslide victory of the twentieth century. Roosevelt carried all but two states and won 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8. Such an overwhelming victory was an obvious expression of approval of Roosevelt’s first four years in office, a mandate for a continuation of his New Deal Policies. The outlook for new legislation was rosy, for the Democratic Party as a whole had done almost as well as Roosevelt. They controlled the House with 331 seats to the Republicans’ 89, and they enjoyed over a three to one majority in the Senate. Under such circumstances it was expected that Roosevelt would be able to embark on a series of legislative initiatives that would make the “100 Days” of 1933 pale in retrospect. Yet, by the end of July 1937, Roosevelt had absorbed the worst political defeat of his years as President.

During Roosevelt’s first term the main stumbling block to social reform had been the Supreme Court, which divided over the New Deal. Four of the justices were conservative: McReynolds, Butler, Sutherland, and Van Devanter. Three supported the New Deal: Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone. In the middle were Justice Roberts and Chief Justice Hughes. As long as both Hughes and Roberts voted with the liberal minority, the New Deal was safe from judicial interference. But in 1935 they started to side with the four conservative justices. Thus on May 27, 1935, they declared the National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional and invalidated other New Deal measures. The crowning blow came in 1936 when the justices struck down both the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the New York Women’s Minimum Wage Law. To FDR and many other liberals, the narrow interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court was based more on the outdated economic and social philosophy of the conservative justices than on good law. Obviously something had to be done.

Roosevelt presented his solution to Congress on February 5, 1937, in the form of a bill to reorganize the judiciary. The bill, couched in terms of “efficiency,” was not limited to the Supreme Court , but the critical clause was one that stipulated that for every justice over seventy years old who did not retire, the President could appoint and additional justice to the Court, potentially expanding the Court to a total of fifteen judges. Since the conservative justices were all over seventy, the bill would put Roosevelt in a position to appoint six new (liberal) judges unless the conservatives resigned. Much to Roosevelt’s surprise, there was immediate and vocal opposition to the bill.

What was the fate of this plan to reform the judiciary branch, and what were the reasons for it?

PRINT AND READ  3.2 Packing the Court, a collection excerpts of primary source documents.  MARK each document as generally favoring or opposing FDR’s proposal for judicial reform.  BRING your document set to class, both for this session and the next.


The larger question we will address is why FDR failed in his effort to enlarge the court.

Day 1.

1.  Which one of the document authors do you think would be most interesting to have a conversation with?  Why?

2.  What political “moves” were most useful?  most surprising?  most “suspect”?

3. After class: Which of your teammates’ comments on Court controversy you discussed today did you find most surprising?

Day 2

1.  Reflect on (document  40) E. Roosevelt’s comment of the outcome of FDR’s attempt to enlarge the size of the Supreme Court.

2. How much weight do you think this “event” should be given in assessing the quality of FDR’s administration?

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