Jean Edward Smith: FDR biographer recommends Dems consider court packing plan after 2008





[Jean Edward Smith is the author, most recently, of F.D.R.]

... When the court overreaches, the Constitution provides checks and balances. In 1805, after persistent political activity by Justice Samuel Chase, Congress responded with its power of impeachment. Chase was acquitted, but never again did he step across the line to mingle law and politics. After the Civil War, when a Republican Congress feared the court might tamper with Reconstruction in the South, it removed those questions from the court’s appellate jurisdiction.

But the method most frequently employed to bring the court to heel has been increasing or decreasing its membership. The size of the Supreme Court is not fixed by the Constitution. It is determined by Congress....

The most recent attempt to alter the size of the court was by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. But instead of simply requesting that Congress add an additional justice or two, Roosevelt’s convoluted scheme fooled no one and ultimately sank under its own weight.

Roosevelt claimed the justices were too old to keep up with the workload, and urged that for every justice who reached the age of 70 and did not retire within six months, the president should be able to appoint a younger justice to help out. Six of the Supreme Court justices in 1937 were older than 70. But the court was not behind in its docket, and Roosevelt’s subterfuge was exposed. In the Senate, the president could muster only 20 supporters.

Still, there is nothing sacrosanct about having nine justices on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s 1937 chicanery has given court-packing a bad name, but it is a hallowed American political tradition participated in by Republicans and Democrats alike.

If the current five-man majority persists in thumbing its nose at popular values, the election of a Democratic president and Congress could provide a corrective. It requires only a majority vote in both houses to add a justice or two. Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues might do well to bear in mind that the roll call of presidents who have used this option includes not just Roosevelt but also Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant.


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