The uproar over Franklin Roosevelt’s Court-packing scheme of 1937 highlighted two perennial tensions in our public life: ends versus means and law versus politics. Roosevelt sought to curb an activist Supreme Court that had brazenly overturned nearly every progressive law that came its way. The National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agriculture Adjustment Act, pension laws, workplace regulations—all were designed to ease the suffering and unemployment of the Great Depression, and in 1935 and 1936 all were invalidated by the Court. By February 1937 Roosevelt had seen enough and introduced the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, which permitted the president to appoint one new justice for every justice who remained on the Court after age 70. If enacted by Congress, the bill would have enabled Roosevelt to add six justices, obviously all liberals, thereby enlarging the Court from nine to fifteen members and reshaping it from a dangerous foe to a formidable ally. Roosevelt’s domestic agenda would have been spared, but only after a major blow to judicial independence, a cornerstone of the separation of powers in American government. But Congress rejected the bill, which had lost all momentum after swing Justice Owen Roberts began voting with the Court’s liberals and conservative Justice Willis Van Devanter retired and was succeeded by the Southern liberal Hugo Black, Roosevelt’s first appointment. A 5-4 conservative bench suddenly became a 6-3 Roosevelt bench. Ends trumped means, and the New Deal was safe.
The reasons for the bill’s failure prompt a cynical appraisal of whether law is anything more than politics by another name. Roberts swore that he hadn’t caved in to political pressure, but nobody believed him. His dramatic reversal—known as "the switch in time that saved nine"—occurred in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, a case involving a constitutional challenge to Washington State’s minimum wage law. Roberts had supplied the fifth vote to strike down a nearly identical New York law less than a year earlier on the rationale that it interfered with employees’ and (mostly) business owners’ liberty of contract—a favorite doctrine of the Court’s conservatives. But he did an about-face and voted to reject the constitutional challenge in Parrish, elating the administration and confounding his brethren. The public did not know at the time that the Court actually held its initial conference and vote on Parrish two months before Roosevelt announced his Court-packing bill, so perhaps Roberts’s decision was not political. Then again, Roosevelt and his allies had been stridently criticizing the Court for months, and various other reform packages had already been introduced in Congress; many historians believe that this steady drumbeat influenced Roberts. He voted with the liberals in the two big remaining cases of the 1936–37 term, rejecting challenges to the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act.
The Court-packing plan and "constitutional crisis" of 1937 are not well-known outside political history circles and first-year law classes. But Jeff Shesol, in his superb book Supreme Power, reminds us of the episode’s historical and contemporary resonance. The showdown was "one of the most ferocious, unpredictable, and consequential fights of the Roosevelt presidency," he writes. In addition to its legal significance, the Court battle diminished Roosevelt’s prestige: he was proven to be fallible, and his support within the Democratic Party slipped. The episode also serves as a warning that future presidents who mess with the Court will get burned. In its analysis of the lead-up to and fallout from Roosevelt’s scheme, Supreme Power is remarkably assured and eminently readable; Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, has synthesized decades of scholarship to produce a fluid, entertaining yet tremendously perceptive book. Although Shesol focuses more on politics and public relations than legal analysis, his accounts of the principal cases are clear and accurate. Supreme Power should bring the Court-packing plan to a broader audience than ever before.