22 July

The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 or “court-packing plan” was a legislative initiative proposed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to add more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s purpose was to obtain favourable rulings regarding New Deal legislation that the court had ruled unconstitutional.

In the Judiciary Act of 1869 Congress had established that the United States Supreme Court would consist of the Chief Justice and eight associate justices. During Roosevelt’s first term the Supreme Court struck down several New Deal measures as being unconstitutional. Roosevelt sought to reverse this by changing the makeup of the court through the appointment of new additional justices who he hoped would rule his legislative initiatives did not exceed the constitutional authority of the government. Since the U.S. Constitution does not define the size of the Supreme Court, Roosevelt pointed out that it was within the power of the Congress to change it. The legislation was viewed by members of both parties as an attempt to stack the court, and was opposed by many Democrats, including Vice President John Nance Garner. The bill came to be known as Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan”.

In November 1936, Roosevelt won a sweeping reelection victory. In the months following, Roosevelt boldly proposed to reorganise the federal judiciary by adding a new justice each time a justice reached age seventy and failed to retire. The legislation was unveiled on February 5, 1937, and was the subject of Roosevelt’s 9th Fireside chat of March 9, 1937.

Roosevelt’s legislative initiative ultimately failed. The bill was held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Democrat committee chair Henry F. Ashurst, who delayed hearings in the Judiciary Committee, saying “No haste, no hurry, no waste, no worry—that is the motto of this committee.” As a result of his delaying efforts, the bill was held in committee for 165 days, and opponents of the bill credited Ashurst as instrumental in its defeat. The bill was further undermined by the untimely death of its chief advocate in the U.S. Senate, Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson. Contemporary observers broadly viewed Roosevelt’s initiative as political manoeuvring. Its failure exposed the limits of Roosevelt’s abilities to push forward legislation through direct public appeal.