When Roosevelt Told Opposing Supreme Court Justices to Get Lost

On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt  announced his intention to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices. The move was clearly a political one. Roosevelt was trying to “pack” the court and in turn make the nation’s highest court a completely liberal entity. Republicans cried foul.

Article Written By Ken Zurski

Roosevelt didn’t care what his opponents thought. He embraced the criticism and mostly ignored it. Although politically it was still a hot button issue, his New Deal policies had earned public acceptance, even praise. The high court, however, was another matter. They had previously struck down several key pieces of his legislation on the grounds that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority in government, specifically the executive branch, but especially the office of the president.

Roosevelt won the 1936 election in a landslide and was feeling a bit emboldened. If he could pack the court, he could win a majority every time. So the president proposed legislation which in essence asked current Supreme Court justices to retire at age 70 with full pay or be appointed an “assistant” with full voting rights, effectively adding a new justice each time.

This initiative would directly affect 75-year-old Chief Justice, Charles Evan Hughes, a Republican from New York and a former nominee for president in 1916 who narrowly lost to incumbent Woodrow Wilson. Hughes resigned his post as a Supreme Court Justice to run for president, then served as Secretary of State under the Harding administration. In 1930, he was nominated by Herbert Hoover to return to the high court as Chief Justice. Hughes had sworn in Roosevelt twice. Now he was being asked by the president to give up his post and in effect – take a hike.

In May of 1937, however, Roosevelt realized his “court packing” idea was wholly unnecessary. In an unexpected role of reversal, two justices, including Hughes, jumped over to the liberal side of the argument and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act, two of the administration’s coveted policies. Roosevelt never brought up the issue of court size again.

But his power move didn’t sit well with the press.

Newspaper editorials criticized him for it and the public’s favor he had enjoyed after two big electoral victories was waning. He was a lame duck president finishing out his second term. Then Germany invaded Poland. Roosevelt’s steady leadership was lauded in a world at war.

In 1940, he ran for an unprecedented third term and won easily.

The following year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: KEN ZURSKI

AUTHOR – Ken Zurski is a longtime broadcaster and author of The Wreck of the Columbia. A native of Chicagoland, where he was a radio personality for many years, Ken now works in Peoria and resides in Morton with his wife Connie and two children, Sam and Nora. Peoria Stories is his second book. Connect with Ken online at facebook.com/kenzurskiauthor.

Mr. Zurski runs a blog called UNREMEMBERED – History has a way of remembering and forgetting certain people and events.  Some may have chosen this path to anonymity and others may have simply been part of a fleeting fame, once recognized for their importance and influence, now lost to time. I’ve always been fascinated by these lesser-known personalities, the so-called other people, or obscure figures whose contributions to our past have been disregarded, neglected or simply put out of mind. These are the stories I want to tell. The stories of the unremembered. 

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One thought on “When Roosevelt Told Opposing Supreme Court Justices to Get Lost

  1. This is discussed a lot in the book “Freedom From Fear” which is a review of the Depression and WWII years. It is a close look at the Roosevelt administration and a very interesting read. You might enjoy it! 🙂

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