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New Deal

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Description: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era legislative program to boost the economy, initially assaulted as unconstitutional but later upheld after Roosevelt threatened to pack the Supreme Court.


Significance: Roosevelt's New Deal and challenge to the Court's authority increased the power of the executive branch of the government, expanded overall federal power, and replaced constitutional formalism with reform jurisprudence.


In the mid-1930's, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, a combination of emergency legislation and a liberal reform agenda designed to end the Great Depression, encountered a conservative Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Much of early New Deal legislation contained emergency clauses designed to get around the Court's formalism and strict constructionism and to justify socioeconomic engineering. In 1934 the Roosevelt administration seemed relieved when the Court upheld two state regulatory laws. However, in January, 1935, the Court invalidated the “hot oil” provision (section 9c) of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), arguing that the law wrongly gave legislative authority to the executive branch. After a reprieve in the Gold Clause Cases (March, 1935), the New Deal received a further blow in May, when the Court invalidated the Railway Retirement Act of 1934. Then on May 27, 1935, known as Black Monday, three separate 9-0 decisions declared unconstitutional the NIRA (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States) and the Frazier-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act of 1934 (Louisville Joint Stock Land Bank v. Radford) and voided presidential removal of regulatory commission members (Humphrey's Executor v. United States). Even the liberal justices Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin N. Cardozo, and Harlan Fiske Stone voted with the majority in holding that the NIRA violated intrastate commerce laws and delegated legislative power to the executive. The Court and President Roosevelt had different parameters concerning the permissible degree of government regulation. The president attacked the Court's decisions as “horse-and-buggy” thinking, rewrote legislation to circumvent the Court's objections, and in 1935 expanded his social reform agenda with the Social Security Act, National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), and Guffy Coal Act. The Supreme Court refused to capitulate and, in 1936, overturned the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) and the Guffy Coal Act and struck down a New York State minimum-wage law. This time, however, the Court's three liberals dissented strongly, with Justice Stone proclaiming the entire session disastrous. Following his landslide reelection in 1936, aware that no justice was planning to retire and sure that the Wagner and Social Security Acts were threatened, Roosevelt declared war on the Court. After numerous verbal assaults, including charges that the Court imperiled American democracy, and after considering numerous options, he decided to reform the Court by statute. Charging the Court with old age and inefficiency, Roosevelt in February, 1937, announced his plan to add six new justices. Despite the hugely divisive effect of the Court-packing plan on the public, Congress, and the Democratic Party, Roosevelt stood firm. Within months of his announcement, the Court reversed itself on a minimum-wage law and then upheld the Wagner and Social Security Acts, with Owen J. Roberts and Hughes joining the liberals. These decisions, plus Justice Willis Van Devanter's announcement of his retirement, defused the Court-packing crisis. Roosevelt claimed a victory, and the Court preserved its independence. By 1940 the Court's turbulent New Deal era had ended. Departures from the Court would enable Roosevelt to appoint eight new justices, and the so-called “Roosevelt Court” upheld all later New Deal legislation.



Further Reading

  • Leuchtenburg, William E. The Supreme Court Reborn: The Constitutional Revolution in the Age of Roosevelt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Hockett, Jeffrey. New Deal Justice: The Constitutional Jurisprudence of Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert H. Jackson. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
  • McKenna, Marian C. Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-Packing Crisis of 1937. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002.
  • Pusey, Merlo John. The Supreme Court Crisis. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
  • Shaw, Stephen K., ed. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Transformation of the Supreme Court. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.