“The history of the world,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “is but the biography of great men.” As the world finds itself mired in the most devastating economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, there are many historical comparisons sought to be invoked. Sometime before Election Day, the United States Supreme Court will announce a decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, healthcare legislation supported by President Obama and passed by Congress in 2010. Media reports of the Court’s decision will certainly include historical references to the New Deal legislation and court challenges of the 1930s. The historical comparisons are striking.
"[James Simon] has crafted an outstanding work of history that may place the forthcoming Supreme Court battle over healthcare in its proper political and legal context."
FDR AND CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES is more than a dual biography of President Franklin Roosevelt and Chief Justice Charles E. Hughes. It is a portrait of a political era in many ways comparable to the battle being waged today in Washington, D.C. But it also reminds readers of how different the historical battle has become as partisan positions have evolved and hardened, resulting in political battles unlike any previously fought.
James Simon, Dean Emeritus at New York Law School, has written six books on the history of the Supreme Court --- from its creation under the Constitution to the Rehnquist Court battles between progressives and conservatives. In all of his writing, Professor Simon recognizes the unique position occupied by the Supreme Court, an institution that cannot ignore the political consequences of its constitutional interpretations.
Tracing the parallel careers of Hughes and Roosevelt, Simon makes clear that the two former governors of New York were not long-time antagonists. Before Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933, the two exchanged warm notes. Eight years later, when Hughes announced his retirement, the President expressed his regret and Hughes and Roosevelt dined together at the White House. The cordial bookend events to their service in Washington belie the depth of the constitutional battle waged by their allies during Roosevelt’s first and second terms as President.
Alternating between biographical chapters on the lives of Roosevelt and Hughes, Simon provides readers with a thorough review of the basic accomplishments of FDR. Given his tenure as the longest-serving President, Roosevelt’s life is well-known to most citizens. Simon’s coverage of Hughes is far more interesting perhaps because he is less well-known. Given the achievements of Hughes’s life, it is surprising that little has been written about him. He was a successful attorney, progressive two-term Governor of New York, Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of State, and finally reappointed to the Court as Chief Justice by Herbert Hoover in 1930. He was a progressive Republican, a political designation that in contemporary times is almost extinct.
The confrontation between Hughes and Roosevelt was the result of a court action invalidating legislative accomplishments of the New Deal. Roosevelt reacted by attacking the Court and the conservative justices who overturned legislation as unconstitutional. The President attacked the Court as consisting of “nine old men.” He proposed expansion of the Supreme Court by adding an additional justice for every justice over 70. Hughes fought back by defending the structure of the court and its workload. The court-packing legislation suffered defeat, but FDR eventually was able to retool the court through the normal process of retirement and nomination. Roosevelt would concede that while he lost the court-packing battle, he eventually won the war to reshape the Supreme Court.
The battle between legislative and judicial supremacy is as old as the nation itself. James Simon has written before about the historical clashes between presidents and the courts. In FDR AND CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES, he has crafted an outstanding work of history that may place the forthcoming Supreme Court battle over healthcare in its proper political and legal context. Perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that this is not the first such battle and certainly will not be the last.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 8, 2012