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New Deal faces old court

FDR's Fireside Chat on the reorganization of the Judiciary, Page 6

FDR's Fireside Chat on the reorganization of the Judiciary, Page 6

When the sweeping laws of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were enacted, it did not take long for the laws to get challenged in the courts. From Social Security to a spate of other laws meant to revamp an economy deep within the Great Depression, the New Deal was not an easily won victory for Progressives, and sometimes not a victory at all.

On what has come to be called “Black Monday”–May 25, 1935–the Supreme Court unanimously ruled  on two cases that each struck down major portions of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The first case to be ruled unconstitutional was the Frazier-Lemke Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, part of the New Deal designed to prevent debt-ridden farmers from losing their land. In a second ruling, the National Industrial Recovery Act, a major cornerstone of the New Deal, was struck down by a vote in the courts, ruling that the Legislative had given too much unchecked power to the Executive, and violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Roosevelt was having a bad day, but would not go down without a fight.

Roosevelt introduced the Judiciary Reorganization Bill in his first Fireside Chat following his reelection in 1936.  More New Deal laws had been declared in the interim, and by 1937, Roosevelt was ready to hit back. “We have,” Roosevelt spoke, “reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the Constitution from the Court, and the Court from itself.”

Part of his plan was to add a justice for every judge over 70 who was sitting on the court. Six of the nine judges on the Supreme Court were over 70.

The bill found no endorsement in the House, and so the White House introduced it to the Senate, where it floundered. The Senate Judiciary Committee eventually labeled FDR’s plan “a needless, futile and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle.”

Still, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Robinson (FDR had promised him a seat on the Supreme Court), pressed on with the bill’s passage. He took the floor for two days straight, and eventually left, complaining of chest pains. He died of a heart attack two days later, and with him, any chance of the bill’s passage.

But in a strange twist, FDR got his wish. By serving in office for more than twelve years, he eventually appointed eight of the nine justices on the court.

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