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    Roosevelt and Truman letters relating to Roosevelt's court packing plan

    Two Letters Relating to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Plan to Increase the Size of the Supreme Court, Together with the Signatures of the Hughes Court. On February 5, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt announced his controversial plan to expand the U.S. Supreme Court to as many as 15 judges, allegedly to make it more efficient. Roosevelt's plan accorded the president power to add one justice for every Supreme Court justice over age 70, up to a total of six. The rationale was that older justices were not able to handle the increasing workload, and additional justices would improve the Court's efficiency. Roosevelt had become increasingly frustrated with the court's recent actions. During the previous two years, the conservative high court had struck down several key pieces of New Deal legislation, declaring that the laws delegated an unconstitutional amount of authority to the executive branch and the federal government. Reelected by a landslide in 1936, Roosevelt believed he had the political capital to get his court plan through Congress. However, the proposed changes drew immediate condemnation from Republicans and southern and moderate Democrats in Congress, as well as from the national press and leaders of the legal profession, who claimed Roosevelt was trying to "pack" the court with liberal justices and thus neutralize Supreme Court justices hostile to his New Deal. In April 1937, however, before the bill came to a vote in Congress, two Supreme Court justices came over to the liberal side and by a narrow majority upheld as constitutional the National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act. The majority opinion acknowledged that the national economy had grown to such a degree that federal regulation and control was now warranted. Roosevelt's reorganization plan was no longer necessary and in July 1937, the Senate struck it down by a vote of 70 to 22. Roosevelt soon had the opportunity to nominate his first Supreme Court justice, and by 1942, all but two of the justices were his appointees.


    Franklin D. Roosevelt Typed Letter Signed. One page of a White House imprinted bifolium, 7" x 8.75", Washington, D.C.; March 15, 1937. A letter to John Biggs, Jr., a federal judge in Wilmington, Delaware, in which he refers to the Supreme Court plan he announced the previous month. In his letter to Biggs, the president refers to his March 4, 1937 speech at the Democratic Victory dinner in Washington, D.C., and his March 9 fireside chat to the nation, in which he warned of the Supreme Court's threat of blocking the economic recovery by striking down several of his New Deal initiatives, and the need for changes he proposes. Referring to his court plan, FDR writes optimistically of the plans chances in the Senate and appears to have underestimated the controversy his court plan would engender.

    "This certainly is an interesting fight and I think things are moving along very successfully although it may be quite a few months before we can actually get a vote on the Senate floor."

    Harry S. Truman. Typed Letter Signed. One page on U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations stationary, 8" x 10.5", Washington, D.C.; February 15, 1937. A letter, written ten days after Roosevelt announced his court plan, to Rufus Burrus of Independence, Missouri, in which Truman, then serving Missouri as a U.S. Senator, gives his personal view of the court packing plan in response to newspaper reports that he changed his mind on the matter.

    "I did not change my mind on the Supreme Court question. In fact I never made a statement on it until after the heading 'Truman Changes His Mind Again' came out in the Star. That statement was made to the New York Times on February Ninth, and I am enclosing you a copy of the telegram.

    I have never changed my mind and still have not made it up, and do not intend to make it up until I know all the facts. I appreciate Fred's attitude but this is no trading matter. It goes to the vital roots of the Government. If you have an opportunity I would suggest that you read a little booklet called 'Limiting Judicial Review' by Joseph L. Lewinson, who is a professor of Law in one of the Universities on California....It is well worth the time spent in reading it."

    Truman eventually made up his mind and became a staunch supporter of President Roosevelt's plan.

    Autographs of the Justices on Charles Evan Hughes's Supreme Court on a Single Sheet. 6" x 4.25", light blue paper with three punched holes on left side; undated. Signed by Supreme Court Justices Hughes (1862-1948), Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), Benjamin N. Cardozo (1870-1938), Owen J. Roberts (1875-1955), Pierce Butler (1866-1939), James Clark McReynolds (1862-1946), George Sutherland (1862-1942), and Willis Van Devanter (1859-1941).

    Butler, McReynolds, Sutherland, and Van Devanter were labeled the "Four Horsemen" of the Supreme Court because of their conservative stance against Roosevelt's New Deal measures. These were the justices who angered Roosevelt by their resistance to his economic program, and led him to try to pack the court with younger, more liberal justices. Brandeis, Cardozo, and Stone, on the other hand, were known as the "Three Musketeers," who consistently opposed their conservative counterparts on the court.

    Condition: Roosevelt's letter is bright and near fine, with a light ink smudge to the signature. Truman's letter has age toning and file holes at top, with usual mail folds. Hughes Court signature sheet has age toning and light soiling, with punch holes along left margin.

    More Information:

    John Biggs, Jr. (1895-1979), from Wilmington, Delaware, was on February 3, 1937, nominated by President Roosevelt to a new seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on February 10, 1937, and received his commission on February 16, 1937. He served as chief judge from 1948 until his death, in 1979, in Wilmington


    Rufus Burrus (1900-1990) was a lawyer, business associate, political advisor, and friend of Truman. He served as Assistant County Counselor for the Jackson County Court from l927 to l941, as an officer in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Reserve, and as an attorney for the Truman's family.



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