Court Packing: Definition, Scheme & Bill

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Bound

Mark has taught graduate level political science and sociology and has a Ph.D. in International Conflict Analysis and Resolution

This lesson will discuss court packing. It will define what it is and the bill that Franklin Roosevelt used to introduce it. We will also discuss why it didn't work. Updated: 11/10/2020

The Reform Bill of 1937

American politicians are accustomed to facing opposition to their political agendas. However, few go so far as attempting to change the fundamental structure of the American government to defeat the opposition. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did just that in 1937 with the introduction of the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill. The bill, frequently called the Court Packing Plan, was an attempt by President Roosevelt to manipulate the makeup of the Supreme Court to secure more favorable rulings to his domestic and economic policy agendas.

This lesson will examine why the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 was introduced, what it attempted to accomplish, and how it was intended to work.

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  • 0:04 The Reform Bill of 1937
  • 0:49 The New Deal & Supreme Court
  • 2:27 Roosevelt & The Supreme Court
  • 3:29 The Court Packing Plan & Bill
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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The New Deal & Supreme Court

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president during the height of the Great Depression. In an attempt to combat this economic disaster, which began in 1929, President Roosevelt initiated innovative legislation in an attempt to get Americans back to work. His economic recovery initiative was called the New Deal.

Normally, as is seen today in 21st-century American politics, resistance to a president's agenda is traditionally found within Congress. However, in 1937, President Roosevelt found his domestic agenda and attempts at stimulating an economic recovery thwarted not so much by Republican opposition in Congress but by the Supreme Court.

Although New Deal supporters had experienced some success to legal challenges within the Supreme Court, the Roosevelt administration remained wary of future court actions. On May 27, 1935, also known as Black Monday, the conservative-minded Supreme Court shot down three of the President's landmark economic reforms. Each was deemed unconstitutional or in violation of the tenants of the United States Constitution. The three cases that were ruled upon that day, Humphrey's Executor v. United States, Louisville Joint Stock Bank v. Radford, and Schechter Poultry Corp. v. the United States, undermined important New Deal legislation.

President Roosevelt saw these defeats, and further defeats experienced over the next two years, as personal attacks. His frustration with the Supreme Court finally led to the conclusion that if he could not win New Deal judicial challenges within the current court, he would simply change the rules.

Roosevelt & the Supreme Court

To the American public, the Supreme Court was considered to be a hallowed institution. The court was seen as containing learned men, free of political restrictions. The public understood that the court's sole purpose was to evaluate the laws proposed by the President and Congress for their suitability to the United States Constitution.

Unlike the President or the members of the House of Representatives and United States Senate, Supreme Court justices were not elected by the people. Justices were not restricted by the term limits placed upon the other two branches. Supreme Court justices, once appointed, could serve until the end of their lifetime.

Although Roosevelt knew he could not change the provision of lifetime appointments to the court, he believed the answer lay in diminishing the authority of the more aged members. Since the United States Constitution did not specify the number of judges that could sit upon the Supreme Court, President Roosevelt felt it was within his jurisdiction, and that of Congress, to appoint as many justices as they felt necessary.

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