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  • Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Transformation of the Supreme Court
  • Amos Kiewe
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Transformation of the Supreme Court. Edited by Stephen K. Shaw, William D. Pederson, and Frank J. Williams. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004; pp 271. $22.95 paper.

This edited volume investigates Franklin Roosevelt's "Court-packing" scheme of 1937 and the ensuing crisis thereof. The study seeks to prove that despite the immediate setback and criticism, Roosevelt did bring significant changes to [End Page 709] the makeup of the Supreme Court and the judiciary. More importantly, Roosevelt's social agenda changed the course of presidential activism. What on the surface appeared to be Roosevelt's miscalculation had both reason and context. This study puts Roosevelt's action in context to show that the president had to find a way to confront a Supreme Court that invalidated many of the New Deal's legislative programs. Roosevelt also found himself in the awkward and rare position of having completed a full term without being able to appoint a single justice to the Court (yet by the fourth term, he would appoint seven of the nine justices). Roosevelt was thus compelled to act to ensure that the many changes he had implemented in overcoming the Great Depression and the collapse of the U.S. economy would not be overturned.

The volume is divided into three parts with several chapters covering the theme of a given part. Part 1 tracks the events leading to Roosevelt's attempts to change the direction of the Supreme Court, covering important judicial developments that led to the crisis of 1937. Part 2 tracks the careers of key individuals in the 1937 crisis such as justices Charles Evans Hughes, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and William Douglas. This section delves into judicial and political background and their impact on the "Court-packing" case. Part 3 examines the impact of the "Court-packing" attempt on future legislation in areas such as civil rights, religion, First Amendment, and the legacy of Roosevelt's attempts to change the direction of the Supreme Court.

The various chapters are well written and well researched. The volume seeks and succeeds in taking a balanced view of Roosevelt's action and impact. The strength of the book is in giving readers an appropriate context from which to assess Roosevelt's action in seeking to change the direction of the Supreme Court. The discussion is limited when the various writers contemplate rhetorical, symbolic, and relational aspects of this presidential and judicial clash. For example, the discussion on Roosevelt and the Supreme Court alludes to "the symbolic presidency" but this discussion is not fully developed to realize Roosevelt's actions as rhetorical rather than political or that the New Deal and the famous first 100 days were highly rhetorical. In other words, Roosevelt often sought political changes through symbolic and rhetorical means.

The volume excels when assessing the public image of the Supreme Court up to 1937 and the significant changes thereafter. This discussion details specific Supreme Court cases that led to Roosevelt's growing frustration with the Court (such as Home Building and Loan v. Blaisdell and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States). By 1935, Roosevelt was alarmed to see major portions of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) being struck down as unconstitutional. Despite the strong criticism Roosevelt suffered after his attempt to add justices to the Court, two of his key "opponents" changed their votes in subsequent cases, thus bringing the change Roosevelt sought. Indeed, a significant [End Page 710] shift in the Supreme Court's ruling had taken place already by 1937, proving Roosevelt's contentions all along. The shift is not only in the direction of specific cases but in the Court's overall increased activity and involvement. Roosevelt's task, well documented in the volume, was difficult and risky. He was severely criticized by many newspaper editorials but in the end, Roosevelt prevailed, not by resorting to coercion but by persuasion. Yet, on balance, Roosevelt's interpretation of executive power was beyond constitutional precedents. His New Deal legislation was grounded on the political need of the president to take all necessary measures during...


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