Speech Against the President’s “Court Packing” Plan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a series of measures that would dramatically alter the face of the Supreme Court. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, one of the leading opponents of Roosevelt's proposals, argued vehemently that the president's efforts amounted to “packing the courts” with his supporters and changing the country's political landscape without the input of the people. Wheeler also criticized the initiatives' proponents for not supporting a constitutional amendment rather than allowing the president to drive legislative changes to the judiciary. Citing the power-consolidating efforts of Hitler and Mussolini, he further criticized those who would support the measures because these bills reflected “the needs of the times.”

Summary Overview

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a series of measures that would dramatically alter the face of the Supreme Court. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, one of the leading opponents of Roosevelt's proposals, argued vehemently that the president's efforts amounted to “packing the courts” with his supporters and changing the country's political landscape without the input of the people. Wheeler also criticized the initiatives' proponents for not supporting a constitutional amendment rather than allowing the president to drive legislative changes to the judiciary. Citing the power-consolidating efforts of Hitler and Mussolini, he further criticized those who would support the measures because these bills reflected “the needs of the times.”

Defining Moment

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election, he did so with the promise that a “new deal” was coming for Americans who suffered under the stagnation of the Great Depression. Not only would the federal government take a far more visible role in aiding citizens and businesses back to financially solid ground, he offered, it would work to create safeguards to prevent another recession. The New Deal would require a different perspective on the role of the federal government, a departure that threatened decades of standard business practices. Still, Roosevelt stressed the urgency of the situation–25 percent of the population was out of work, banks were closed, and businesses were failing across the country.

Roosevelt famously put a large chunk of his New Deal's many components into action during the first one hundred days of his presidency. The speed with which the New Deal was introduced, and the sweeping nature of its reforms, led to severe backlash from certain organizations, including states-rights and small-government advocates, the press, and business and finance groups. Many opponents of the New Deal filed suit, some getting their cases heard by the Supreme Court. In such instances, Roosevelt often came out on the losing end, as the court's justices held to the traditional philosophy of a federal government with limited powers. The Supreme Court was also known to be less receptive to the complaints of organized labor as well as interest groups representing the poor.

Stymied by the judiciary, Roosevelt began to take dramatic and controversial steps. He proposed a comprehensive court reorganization measure known as the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. Among the bill's initiatives was a provision that allowed the president to appoint an additional judge for any sitting judge who had ten years of experience on the bench and had reached the age of seventy. Under this plan, Roosevelt could appoint as many as six additional Supreme Court justices. The plan was framed as a measure that could alleviate an overburdened judiciary. However, many saw the initiative as little more than an effort by Roosevelt to pack the courts with policymaking judges who shared Roosevelt's governmental vision.

Roosevelt had been swept into power with the full support of his own Democratic Party. However, this particular bill significantly divided the Democratic members of Congress, while Republicans were unified against it. Despite the president's best efforts, even some of his usual supporters in Congress bristled at the proposals. After all, the Senate was the legislative body charged with approving the president's nominees for federal courts. One Senator, Montana Democrat Burton K. Wheeler, encouraged the president to pursue a constitutional amendment to achieve his goals, a suggestion that proponents of the court-packing bill claimed would take too much time.

Author Biography

Burton Kendall Wheeler was born in Hudson, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1882. In 1905, he graduated from law school at the University of Michigan and moved to Butte, Montana, to start practicing law. In 1909, he began career in politics, winning a seat in the Montana state legislature and later holding the post of US district attorney for Montana. In 1922, Wheeler was elected to the US Senate, a position he would hold for four terms, through 1947. In 1924, he was tapped by Wisconsin senator and presidential candidate Robert La Follette to be the Independent Progressive Party's candidate for vice president. Although the bid was unsuccessful, Wheeler gained a national reputation as an independent-minded leader. In 1940, President Roosevelt asked Wheeler to serve as his running mate, despite their differences over the former's court reorganization plan, but Wheeler declined. He returned to practicing law in Washington, DC, after leaving the Senate. He died on January 6, 1975, in Washington.

Document Analysis

Burton K. Wheeler's July 9, 1937, speech on the floor of the Senate was a strong criticism of President Roosevelt's Judicial Procedures Reform Bill, as well as those who supported it. The Montana Senator sharply criticized the measure as unconstitutional, arguing that the president should seek a constitutional amendment rather than attempting to change the courts through legislation. Furthermore, he spoke out against efforts to force the bill through Congress, including alleged attempts to threaten and intimidate legislators into supporting Roosevelt's agenda.

Wheeler stated that there was a tremendous public backlash against Roosevelt's proposals. This outcry, Wheeler said, underscored the fact that the public, like Wheeler's congressional colleagues, saw through Roosevelt's rhetoric. Whereas the president was arguing that this bill would quickly bring help to Depression-stricken Americans, Wheeler argued, it was clear that Roosevelt's actual intent was to pack the courts with his own judges.

Wheeler also took issue with the manner by which the president and other leaders outside of Congress were attempting to push through the bill. Postmaster general and Democratic Party chair James Farley acted as though the legislative process was but a formality–that the Senate and House would have an opportunity to speak on the measure, but that the president would easily prevail, Wheeler said. He added that other officials attempted to intimidate and coerce senators to fall in line with the president, threats to which Wheeler said he would not bow.

The public backlash against the president's bill also underscored Wheeler's position that the only means by which Roosevelt's proposed changes could be found acceptable was through the Constitution. This course of action was certainly brought to the attention of the president, Wheeler said, but Roosevelt and his supporters felt that it would take years to ratify such an amendment. Wheeler criticized this point of view, citing the fact that some amendments took less than a year to be ratified. The administration's argument was, therefore, inaccurate.

Wheeler said the real problem facing Roosevelt was not the length of time it would take to approve the measure via constitutional amendment, but with public sentiment. Americans simply were not as up in arms over “5–4 decisions” in the Supreme Court as Roosevelt was, Wheeler said. The Supreme Court, he said, was comprised of many justices, for whom Wheeler's Senate colleagues–many of whom were now supporting Roosevelt's bill–had voted to approve their nominations to the court. The Supreme Court might be divided at times over key legal issues, Wheeler concluded, but the justices were honorable men, who were performing their jobs properly and within constitutional guidelines. Wheeler said he saw no need to interfere in the court's affairs, even if time was of the essence in obtaining a favorable ruling on the New Deal's provisions and programs.

Essential Themes

Although a member of the Democratic Party, Senator Burton Wheeler was known as an independent-minded leader who was not afraid to question the actions of his party or his president. Wheeler's speech on July 9, 1937, served as a reminder of this characteristic. Wheeler understood the fact that the president was frustrated with the country's legal system. However, he could not condone the president's actions–namely, attempting to correct the ongoing issue by adding his own hand-picked judges to the judiciary.

Furthermore, Wheeler could not accept the manner in which the bill was being pushed through Congress. The Senate, he argued, had long been responsible for approving the president's nominees. This measure, therefore, did not just undermine the judiciary's constitutional authority; it undermined the Senate's as well. The bill's advocates, Wheeler added, arrogantly presumed that the Democrats would simply fall in line behind Roosevelt. Those who did not support the bill were threatened, intimidated, and otherwise coerced until they agreed. Wheeler spoke for those who refused to yield to such behavior.

In reality, Wheeler said, the reason for such tactics (and for that matter, the bill itself) was that the public was simply not in agreement that such a major change was necessary. If there was sentiment to advance such a controversial matter, Wheeler continued, the only acceptable vehicle for this matter would be a constitutional amendment. It did not take nearly as long to ratify an amendment as the president claimed, Wheeler continued–all that was necessary was the public will, a concept disregarded by the president and his supporters.

The president enjoys a wide range of constitutionally acceptable exertions of power, Wheeler said. The Senate and the House take full advantage of the parameters of their own power, as does the judiciary, he added. In this case, however, the president was asking the legislature to use its powers to undermine the judiciary. Wheeler, citing these examples, could not stand idly by while the very framework he swore to protect was threatened for the purposes of advancing the president's agenda.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Holt, Daniel S. Debates on the Federal Judiciary: A Documentary History, Volume II: 1875–1939. Washington: Federal Judicial History Office, 2013. Print.
  • McKenna, Marian Cecilia. Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-Packing Crisis of 1937. New York: Fordham UP, 2002. Print.
  • Menaker, Richard G. “FDR's Court-Packing Plan: A Study in Irony.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, 2014. Web. 23 June 2014.
  • Sanburn, Josh. “FDR vs. The Supreme Court.” Time. Time, Inc., 2011. Web. 23 June 2014.
  • Wheeler Azqueta, Robin. “Biography, Burton Kendall Wheeler.” Wheelercenter.org. Burton K. Wheeler Center, 2013. Web. 23 June 2014.
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