Roosevelt, Franklin D. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 Court-Packing Plan

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 HorsemenFour Horsemen. They were frequently joined by Justice Owen J. Roberts and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. From 1933 through 1936 these justices led the Court to declare unconstitutional some of the most important New Deal New Deallegislation.

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 planCourt-packing plan caused immediate and widespread criticism, consternation, and concern. Many of Roosevelt’s allies deserted him, and the measure was defeated by the Senate seventy to twenty.

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 nineSwitch in time that saved nine,” was revealed as early as March 29, when the Court upheld Washington state’s minimum-wage law for women in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish[case]West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish[West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish] (1937). On April 12, the Court approved the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, better known as the Wagner Act, which assured organized labor’s constitutional rights. Tellingly, both opinions were drafted by Chief Justice Hughes. On May 24, the Court upheld the old-age tax and benefits and the unemployment provisions of the Social Security Act, the centerpiece of the entire New Deal.

Roosevelt’s Court

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,Black, Hugo L. a brilliant scholar and jurist from Alabama, who was to serve for thirty-four years. Black’s confirmation was rocked by the revelation that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Black candidly explained that, in the South of his youth, Klan membership was expected of men in public office. Once he learned the true nature of the organization, he said, he left it and had nothing more to do with it.

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[case]Gideon v. Wainwright[Gideon v. Wainwright] (1963), established the precedent that poor defendants had the constitutional right to an attorney.

Roosevelt’s second appointment was Stanley F. Reed,Reed, Stanley F. U.S. solicitor general. His third nominee was another outstanding figure, Felix Frankfurter,Frankfurter, Felix who took the place of Benjamin N. Cardozo. Frankfurter became known for his insistence on judicial restraint. William O. Douglas,Douglas, William O. the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was nominated and approved in 1939. He served the longest of Roosevelt’s appointees thirty-six years, until 1975 and was one of the Court’s most colorful and controversial members.

Roosevelt’s other appointments to the Court included Frank Murphy,Murphy, Frank Roosevelt’s attorney general; James F. Byrnes,Byrnes, James F. senator from South Carolina, who stepped down from the Court after only a year; and Wiley B. Rutledge, Jr.Rutledge, Wiley B., Jr., who replaced Byrnes.

In June, 1941, Chief Justice Hughes announced his retirement, giving Roosevelt the opportunity to appoint his own chief justice. He chose Harlan Fiske Stone,Stone, Harlan Fiske one of the nation’s most distinguished jurists, who was approved unanimously by the Senate on June 27. To fill Stone’s associate justice position, Roosevelt nominated his attorney general, Robert H. Jackson,Jackson, Robert H. who later was chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crime trials.

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.

Further Reading
  • 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.

Court-packing plan

Douglas, William O.

Frankfurter, Felix

Hughes, Charles Evans

Jackson, Robert H.

Murphy, Frank

New Deal

Reed, Stanley F.

Rutledge, Wiley B., Jr.

Stone, Harlan Fiske

World War II

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