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Understand FDR Court-Packing Plan

Fdr Court Packing Plan

The Constitutionally-derived ability of the President of the United States to exercise power in regards to the Supreme Court received a significant test in the form of the Depression-era controversy over the Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Administration's plan to enact what was termed a "Court-packing" procedure. Through this reform, the FDR White House planned to increase the number of Justices sitting on the Supreme Court, thereby increasing its ability to enact programs under the New Deal rubric aimed at expanding the Government's power to alleviate the poverty-stricken conditions of the Great Depression.

The Administration pushed for the Court-packing plan with the encouragement of a substantial electoral victory behind it, only to encounter unanticipated levels of political opposition and ultimately, and surprisingly, defeat, which ran against the era's trend for the general expansion of executive branch power.
The FDR Court-packing plan was formally introduced to Congress as part of the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, which was submitted in 1936 and also contained measures for other changes to the Supreme Court, all intended for the general purpose of modernization. The FDR Administration felt empowered to introduce the Court-packing plan because, in addition to its political clout, the Constitution does not provide for the size of the Supreme Court or for many of the Court's features other than its basic responsibilities.
The number of Justices had originally been set by Congress at six, and after six subsequent changes in policy, was placed at nine in 1869. The President's power over the Supreme Court is thus limited to the ability to place new nominees into vacant places on the bench. The so-called Court-packing power would allow the President to select as many as six new Justices to the Supreme Court, each for every member over seventy-and-a-half years of age, with the justification that this would allow for the diminished capabilities of older Justices.
When it was unveiled, the FDR Court-packing plan was widely regarded, and in some quarters, attacked as a response to the judicial challenges dealt to the New Deal program by the Supreme Court and the overall perception of the Court as a relatively conservative hold-out in an increasingly liberal climate. The term "Court-packing" was applied at this time to the legislation to express this unfavorable view.
The perception of the Court as being opposed to the New Deal on political principle lost its hold around the same time as the Judiciary Act's introduction with a shift in the bench's political balance. One of the Associate Justices began ruling more favorably toward FDR legislation, while another consistent FDR opponent in the Court soon thereafter resigned. At this point many Democratic members of Congress, Roosevelt's own party, began to oppose the Court-packing procedure.
The Bill in general was rejected on these grounds at first and was later allowed only on the basis of the Court-packing provision's removal. Contrary to what had originally been expected from the legislation, its failure to pass coincided with the formation of a Supreme Court newly supportive of the New Deal, while its introduction cost Roosevelt some of his political support.

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