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By 1935, New Deal critics were becoming more numerous and vocal. Congressmen, including even some Democrats, had overcome the initial panic and were becoming more fiscally conservative as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s deficit spending soared. More important, aging, conservative appointees dominated the Supreme Court and had begun to strike down several key laws of the First New Deal.
In the 1935 Schechter v. United States ruling, for example, a majority of justices declared that the National Recovery Act was unconstitutional. They argued that the act gave too much power to the president and was an attempt to control intrastate commerce. The following year, justices also struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in Butler v. United States on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and tried to exert federal control of agricultural production.
Roosevelt believed that the National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration were crucial to reviving the American economy and feared that any more conservative Supreme Court rulings would cripple or even kill New Deal policy entirely. In 1937, to prevent this from happening, the president petitioned Congress to alter the makeup of the Supreme Court on the pretense that the justices, old age was affecting their ability to work and concentrate. Roosevelt asked for the power to appoint as many as six new justices, bringing the total to fifteen, and to replace justices over the age of seventy. The true aim of the request was obvious: it would enable Roosevelt to effectively stack the deck to ensure that only pro–New Dealers would sit on the Court.
The court-packing scheme backfired. Rather than win over Democrats and New Dealers in Congress, Roosevelt shocked supporters with his attempt at misusing his executive powers. The president’s blatant disregard for the cherished separation of powers stunned even the American people. Roosevelt repeatedly denied charges that he was trying to bend the entire federal government to his will and defended his belief that aging justices were often incapable of performing their duties. The court-packing debate dragged on for several months before Congress and Roosevelt reached a compromise. Congress made minor reforms in the lower courts but left the Supreme Court untouched.
The court-packing scheme took a severe toll on Roosevelt’s popularity and marked the beginning of the end of the New Deal. Politicians and regular Americans alike were keenly aware that the federal government under the tight control of a single individual would be nothing more than a dictatorship, no matter how benevolent or well intentioned the leader happened to be. Roosevelt’s clumsy attempts to disguise his intentions had the effect only of making him look guilty. As the public grew suspicious of “dictator” Roosevelt, fellow Democrats in Congress began to vote more conservatively, and the chances of any more significant New Deal legislation being passed became slim.
Ironically, the court-packing scheme may have helped Roosevelt in one way. Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, who had notoriously struck down New Deal laws in the past, mysteriously began to vote in favor of the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act after Roosevelt announced his plan to replace six justices. Historians are still uncertain as to why Roberts suddenly looked favorably upon the New Deal, but few believe it was mere coincidence.
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