The author of acclaimed books on the bitter clashes between presidents and chief justices --- Jefferson and Marshall, Lincoln and Taney --- over the character of the nation, constitutional power, slavery, secession and the president’s war powers, James F. Simon tells the dramatic story of the struggle between FDR and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes that decided the fate of the New Deal.
The collision of Roosevelt and Hughes, like those of Jefferson and Marshall, Lincoln and Taney, occurred at a pivotal moment in American history. Roosevelt came to office in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. He bombarded Congress with a fusillade of legislative initiatives that included shutting down insolvent banks, regulating stocks, imposing industrial codes, and rationing agricultural production. Major New Deal statutes, which Roosevelt considered critical to the nation’s economic recovery, were struck down by the Hughes Court as unconstitutional.
In 1936, FDR was reelected by a landslide and the exasperated president proposed legislation to relieve, he said, the overburdened and elderly justices of their heavy workload. He proposed the appointment of an additional justice for each sitting member over 70 years old. Six of the justices on the Hughes Court, including the Chief Justice, were over 70. The proposal would have permitted the president to stack the Court with justices favorable to the New Deal. The Chief deftly rebutted the claim that the Court was not abreast of its work, and the proposal was defeated. In grudging admiration, FDR later said that the Chief Justice was the best politician in the country.
Despite the defeat of his plan, Roosevelt never lost confidence and, like Hughes, never ceded leadership. He outmaneuvered isolationist senators to expedite aid to Great Britain as the Allies hovered on the brink of defeat. He then led his country through the Second World War to become the greatest president of the 20th century.