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FDR's "Court-Packing" Plan

February 5, 1937

After winning the 1936 presidential election in a landslide, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a bill to expand the membership of the Supreme Court. The law would have added one justice to the Court for each justice over the age of 70, with a maximum of six additional justices. Roosevelt’s motive was clear – to shape the ideological balance of the Court so that it would cease striking down his New Deal legislation. As a result, the plan was widely and vehemently criticized. The law was never enacted by Congress, and Roosevelt lost a great deal of political support for having proposed it. Shortly after the president made the plan public, however, the Court upheld several government regulations of the type it had formerly found unconstitutional. In National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, for example, the Court upheld the right of the federal government to regulate labor-management relations pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Many have attributed this and similar decisions to a politically motivated change of heart on the part of Justice Owen Roberts, often referred to as “the switch in time that saved nine.” Some legal scholars have rejected this narrative, however, asserting that Roberts' 1937 decisions were not motivated by Roosevelt's proposal and can instead be reconciled with his prior jurisprudence.

Timeline: 
The Structure of the Federal Courts