When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court—and Lost

Buoyed by his reelection but dismayed by rulings of the justices who stopped his New Deal programs, a president overreaches

As the first election returns reached his family estate in Hyde Park, New York, on a November night in 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt leaned back in his wheelchair, his signature cigarette holder at a cocky angle, blew a smoke ring and cried “Wow!” His huge margin in New Haven signaled that he was being swept into a second term in the White House with the largest popular vote in history at the time and the best showing in the electoral college since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820.

The outpouring of millions of ballots for the Democratic ticket reflected the enormous admiration for what FDR had achieved in less than four years. He had been inaugurated in March 1933 during perilous times—one-third of the workforce jobless, industry all but paralyzed, farmers desperate, most of the banks shut down—and in his first 100 days he had put through a series of measures that lifted the nation’s spirits. In 1933 workers and businessmen marched in spectacular parades to demonstrate their support for the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Roosevelt’s agency for industrial mobilization, symbolized by its emblem, the blue eagle. Farmers were grateful for government subsidies dispensed by the newly created Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA).

Over the ensuing three years, the cavalcade of alphabet agencies had continued: SEC (the Securities and Exchange Commission); REA (the Rural Electrification Administration) and a good many more. The NYA (National Youth Administration) had permitted college students, such as the future playwright Arthur Miller, to work their way through college. The WPA(Works Progress Administration) had sustained millions of Americans, including artists such as Jackson Pollock and writers such as John Cheever. In a second burst of legislation in 1935, Roosevelt had introduced the welfare state to the nation with the Social Security Act, legislating old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. During the 1936 campaign, the president’s motorcade, mobbed by well-wishers wherever he traveled, had to inch along the streets in towns and cities across the nation. His landslide victory that year signified the people’s verdict on the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote Arthur Krock, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, had gotten “the most overwhelming testimonial of approval ever received by a national candidate in the history of the nation.”

The election-night jubilation was tempered, however, by an inescapable fear—that the U.S. Supreme Court might undo Roosevelt’s accomplishments. From the outset of his presidency, FDR had known that four of the justices—Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland and Willis Van Devanter—would vote to invalidate almost all of the New Deal. They were referred to in the press as “the Four Horsemen,” after the allegorical figures of the Apocalypse associated with death and destruction. In the spring of 1935, a fifth justice, Hoover-appointee Owen Roberts—at 60 the youngest man on the Supreme Court—began casting his swing vote with them to create a conservative majority.

During the next year, these five judges, occasionally in concert with others, especially Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, struck down more significant acts of Congress—including the two foundation stones, the NRA and the AAA, of Roosevelt’s program—than at any other time in the nation’s history, before or since. In May 1935, the court destroyed FDR’s plan for industrial recovery when, in a unanimous decision involving a kosher poultry business in Brooklyn, it shot down the blue eagle. Little more than seven months later, in a 6 to 3 ruling, it annihilated his farm program by determining that the Agricultural Adjustment Act was unconstitutional. Most of the federal government’s authority over the economy derived from a clause in the Constitution empowering Congress to regulate interstate commerce, but the court construed the clause so narrowly that in another case that next spring, it ruled that not even so vast an industry as coal mining fell within the commerce power.

These decisions drew biting criticism, from inside and outside the court. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, a Republican who had been Calvin Coolidge’s attorney general, denounced Roberts’ opinion striking down the farm law as a “tortured construction of the Constitution.” Many farmers were incensed. On the night following Roberts’ opinion, a passerby in Ames, Iowa, discovered life-size effigies of the six majority opinion justices hanged by the side of a road.

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