During his twelve years as president, Roosevelt led the United States out of the Great Depression and through World War II. He fought a titanic battle with conservative elements on the Supreme Court and thoroughly transformed the institution through his nine nominations, the most by any president since George Washington.
When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, he had been elected president of the United States four times and had been in the office since March 4, 1932. Born to a wealthy New York family, he had served as state legislator, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy and governor of New York. Roosevelt’s fight against polio, which he contracted in 1921, transformed him into a stronger and more compassionate leader. As president, Roosevelt helped transform much of American life and also effected lasting changes on the Supreme Court, which began as Roosevelt’s implacable enemy but eventually became one of his strongest allies.
After his first inaugural in 1933, Roosevelt moved quickly through his first hundred days, delivering to Congress a wide-ranging series of acts that formed the basis for the New Deal, an ambitious program to restore the U.S. economy. New Deal measures included the National Industrial Recovery Act; the Agricultural Adjustment Act; the Civilian Conservation Corps; and the Works Project Administration. These measures were soon involved in law cases to be decided by the Court. Led by a quartet of conservative justices, the Court regularly defeated New Deal measures.
The core of the opposition to the New Deal was made up of justices Pierce Butler, James C. McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter the Four Horsemen
On February 5, 1937, perhaps emboldened by his recent landslide reelection, Roosevelt proposed a plan that would allow presidents to appoint a new federal judge for each federal judge who failed to retire within six months of reaching seventy years old. There would be a limit of fifty such judges and no more than fifteen judges on the Court. This Court-packing plan
However, in the meantime, the Court had made a dramatic alteration to a more pro-New Deal attitude. This change, nicknamed the “switch in time that saved nine
Ironically, having lost the Court-packing fight, Roosevelt entered a lengthy period during which he was able to restructure the Court as he wished through the normal process of departure and appointment.
First to leave was Van Devanter, who retired on June 1, 1937. In his place, the president appointed Hugo L. Black,
Confirmed by the Senate, Black became the most influential justice since John Marshall. His chief legacy was in enlarging and expanding the scope of the Bill of Rights. One of his most famous opinions, Gideon v. Wainwright
Roosevelt’s second appointment was Stanley F. Reed,
Roosevelt’s other appointments to the Court included Frank Murphy,
In June, 1941, Chief Justice Hughes announced his retirement, giving Roosevelt the opportunity to appoint his own chief justice. He chose Harlan Fiske Stone,
One of the most profound and lasting alterations during Roosevelt’s time as president was the Court’s shift to being a body more receptive to the rights and freedoms of the individual, linked to the power and even the duty of the state to protect, preserve, and enlarge those rights and freedoms. After Roosevelt, the Court was not the institution it had been before and, instead of being a barrier to progress, had become a vehicle for change and improvement.
Abraham, Henry. Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Leuchtenburg, William E. The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Black, Hugo L.
Byrnes, James F.
Douglas, William O.
Hughes, Charles Evans
Jackson, Robert H.
Reed, Stanley F.
Rutledge, Wiley B., Jr.
Stone, Harlan Fiske
World War II