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Court Packing vs. Reorganizing: The Supreme Court in the New Deal

Focusing on Details: Discussion Topic

All documents and text associated with this activity are printed below, followed by a worksheet for student responses.

Introduction

During President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term, the Supreme Court had declared eight of FDR's New Deal programs unconstitutional, including the National Recovery Act (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

After his landslide reelection in 1936, FDR submitted to Congress a plan for "judicial reform," which forever came to be known as his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court. FDR's controversial plan proposed adding another justice for every justice over the age of 70 who refused to retire, up to a maximum of 15 total.

Analyze the following letter concerning one citizen's opinion of FDR's plan.


Name:
Class:

Worksheet

Court Packing vs. Reorganizing: The Supreme Court in the New Deal

Focusing on Details: Discussion Topic

Examine the documents included in this activity and write your response in the space provided.


Carefully read and summarize the document. Cite specific textual evidence to support your analysis of the document.

  • What type of document is this?
  • Are there any symbols, letterhead, stamps, seals, or notations on the document? What do these tell you?
  • What was author Frank Gannett's purpose in writing this document?
  • What claims does Gannett make in this letter?
  • What evidence does Gannett provide to support his claims?

Your Response




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Activity Element

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Conclusion

Court Packing vs. Reorganizing: The Supreme Court in the New Deal

Focusing on Details: Discussion Topic

Based on your analysis of the letter:

Which of Gannett's claims do you find most valid?
Which of Gannett's claims do you find least valid?

Explain your opinion with specific evidence from the letter.

Your Response




Document

Statement by Frank E. Gannett, of Gannett Newspapers Regarding President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Attempt to Pack the Supreme Court

2/23/1937

In 1935-36, the Supreme Court struck down eight of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, including the National Recovery Act (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). By 1937 the Court was widely regarded by the public as an enemy of working people. Many critics questioned the constitutionality of the concept of judicial review itself. Several constitutional amendments were introduced into Congress that would restrict the Court's power. FDR remained silent, hoping that the antijudicial public sentiment would continue to grow without his having to enter the fray. He avoided any direct references to the Court in the 1936 election campaign. After his election victory, however, he submitted to Congress early in February 1937 a plan for "judicial reform," which forever came to be known as his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court. This plan to reconstitute the Court with justices more favorable to the New Deal backfired. Franklin Roosevelt and his Attorney General, Homer Cummings, suggested changing the number of justices on the Court, which had been done six times since 1789. Their plan, however, proposed adding a justice for every justice over the age of 70 who refused to retire, up to a maximum of 15 total. Letters poured into the White House and Justice Department both attacking and supporting the President's plan. One of the most outspoken members of the press was the Rochester, New York, newspaper publisher, Frank Gannett. This document was sent by Gannett to the Office of the Solicitor in the Justice Department and then referred to the Attorney General. Like many other in the file, it expresses the concern that the real issue is not judicial reform but the continued expansion of executive power. It was expected that the Republicans would cry foul, but when the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a member of the President's own party, Democrat Hatton Sumners of Texas, announced his opposition, the plan was as good as dead. Further resistance developed as the Court began a reversal of its previous conservative course by ruling in favor of such legislation as the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. Congressmen urged the White House to withdraw the bill, but FDR refused to back down and lost the fight in Congress. 

Text adapted from "Constitutional Issues: Separation of Powers" in the January 1987 National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education.
This primary source comes from the General Records of the Department of Justice.
National Archives Identifier: 6207444
Full Citation: Statement by Frank E. Gannett, of Gannett Newspapers Regarding President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Attempt to Pack the Supreme Court; 2/23/1937; 235868 Sub 1 Jan. 10, 1936 THRU February 26, 1937; Straight Numerical Files, 1904 - 1974; General Records of the Department of Justice, ; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/statement-by-frank-gannett, September 21, 2019]


Statement by Frank E. Gannett, of Gannett Newspapers Regarding President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Attempt to Pack the Supreme Court

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