The New Deal in Decline

In his second inaugural address in early 1937, Franklin Roosevelt promised to press for new social legislation. Instead, he wasted much of his term on a battle with the Supreme Court.

Court Packing

On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court struck down a basic part of Roosevelt's program of recovery and reform. In the case Schechter v. the U.S, a kosher chicken dealer claimed that the NRA was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court agreed that Congress had delegated excessive authority to the president and had improperly involved the federal government in regulating interstate commerce.

In June 1936, the court ruled that the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Act was unconstitutional. Then six months later, the high court declared a New York state minimum wage law invalid. Roosevelt worried that the Court had established a "'no-man's land' where no government, state or federal, can function."

President Roosevelt feared that every New Deal reform might be struck down by the Supreme Court. In 1936, his supporters in Congress introduced over a hundred bills to limit the judiciary's power. The president proposed a controversial "court-packing scheme" that proposed a reorganization of the Supreme Court. Roosevelt wanted to force his opponents on the Supreme Court to resign so that he could replace them with justices more sympathetic to his policies. He announced a plan to add one new member to the Supreme Court for every judge who had reached the age of 70 without retiring (six justices).

Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme was a political disaster. People across the political spectrum denounced Roosevelt for undermining the Constitutional principle of separation of powers. The Court itself ended the crisis by deciding two cases in favor of New Deal reforms. The Court upheld the Wagner Act and approved a Washington state minimum wage law.

Roosevelt remained obsessed with the idea of packing the court. His struggle become a political embarrassment. The only part of the president's plan to gain congressional approval was a judicial pension program. By 1941 Roosevelt had named five justices to the Supreme Court. The new "Roosevelt Court" significantly expanded the government's role in the economy and in civil liberties.

Source: The New Deal in Decline
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