In the pantheon of great American presidents, a few are always at the top. Lincoln usually comes to mind, then Washington, and Jefferson. In the 20th century, the president who makes every list is Franklin Roosevelt. What makes FDR interesting is that, unlike Lincoln, FDR was beloved in his own time. Because of the way he handled the Depression, it was not uncommon to see FDR’s picture hanging in homes in a place of honor. Don’t get me wrong. Some people had issues with this president, but most appreciated his efforts to relieve the nation’s pains. Yet there was one episode where he did receive rebuke from both sides of the political aisle and the population at large and that was his effort to pack the Supreme Court.
Here was the situation. When FDR took over the nation in 1932, we were in the midst of the greatest depression in our history. The president wanted to tackle as many problems as he could in his first 100 days (starting a precedent that has lasted till today). Many of his proposals became part of his alphabet programs like the WPA, AAA, TVA, and the CCC. One of his first and, it turned out, most controversial was the National Recovery Administration. The NRA, in an effort to reduce competition, created codes that did things like set prices. The problem for FDR was that in 1935 the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional.
FDR, worried that more of his New Deal plans would be rejected by the courts, came up with a plan to get the courts on his side. He proposed adding a new judge for every member of the Court over the age of 70, which meant adding six new justices to the bench, enough to turn the tide of the court in his favor. He claimed the court was overworked and suggested the new justices could relieve some pressure. The problem was that most Americans and both sides of Congress saw it for what it really was, a power grab. Even though the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress, a vote for FDR’s measure failed. The failure was partly because one judge had begun voting for FDR’s programs, but also because the courts were seen as sacred and people feared FDR’s plan could destroy the separation of powers.
Constitutionally, FDR had the power to propose this court-packing scheme. As with many things, the Constitution is silent on the number of judges to the high court, simply saying in Article 3, Section 1: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”
Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which set up the Court with six judges. John Adams dropped it down to five, but then Jefferson brought it back to six and then later, when the Federalist judges did not die fast enough, he moved it to seven. Later Jackson added two more as the population grew and more judicial districts were needed. The Civil War saw some jumbling as Lincoln moved the number to ten, only to be reduced to seven by Andrew Johnson. Finally, under Grant the number was put to nine and since 1869 it has remained that way.
Now, in 2021 President Joe Biden is considering legislation to increase the number of justices for the first time since FDR. The president’s reasoning is that the Republicans have gained an unfair advantage with Trump’s three new justices. Democrats are still understandably upset at Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett after Republicans blocked Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, in his last year. However, though understandable, what the Republicans did was legal, if not morally, correct. What Biden is trying to do is no different than FDR, who wanted to make sure the courts agreed with him. If Clinton had won in 2016 and liberal-leaning judges controlled the court, there would be no call for equality in the court coming from Democratic camps.
I normally try to explain history, not solutions, but this is one area where I believe the Founders failed. Not that their system failed, but they could never have foreseen how partisan we have become.
Judges are supposed to follow the law, not a party. I would propose a new amendment to the Constitution that goes back to the original number, six, or maybe eight. With an even number, the new law would allow Republicans to choose four and the Democrats to choose four. If a judge dies, then the party of that judge gets to choose the new one. I know this sounds crazy, but with an even number justices will have to compromise over the law and not political leanings.
If Biden decided to, he might be able to pull off increasing the number of judges. Historically Speaking, however, he would need to be extremely careful. FDR won his second election by carrying all but two states before he tried something so daring. Biden does not have that same type of support. FDR, who was beloved, was seen as going for a power grab. Biden, who is nowhere nearly as loved, may not be able to survive the hit.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.