In the wake of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landslide re-election of 1936, the popular president-never anything but self-confident-unaccountably overreached. Deeply frustrated by a Supreme Court that had blocked many of his New Deal initiatives, FDR proposed to enlarge it from 9 justices to 15. The now-famous "court packing scheme" divided Roosevelt's own party and inflamed the country at large, and it failed-humiliatingly for FDR-because the president could persuade neither the public nor the Senate of its virtues. And yet, ironically, he could claim ultimate victory, for the Court that emerged from the revolution of 1937-its majority shifted from conservative to liberal-lasted for the next 68 years, until the recent Bush appointments have tilted it back. Historian Burt Solomon, deeply steeped in Washington's lore, skillfully chronicles one of the great set pieces in American history, illuminating the inner workings of the nation's capital as the three branches of our government squared off. The Supreme Court has generated many fascinating and dramatic stories, but none more so than that of the 168 days during which one of our greatest presidents attempted to outmaneuver the Constitution-an action that inevitably calls forth parallels with the present.
During his first term as president, FDR became frustrated by a Supreme Court with a majority of Republican appointees that routinely ruled unconstitutional various New Deal initiatives in narrow 5 to 4 votes. Most particularly, the Court crippled the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 the very heart of FDR's prescription for economic recovery. As Solomon (The Washington Century: Three Families and the Shaping of the Nation's Capital) shows in this compelling and painstakingly researched study, after being re-elected by a large plurality in 1936, FDR attempted to revive a long-dead proposal, arguing that all Supreme Court justices 70 years or older either retire or the president be allowed to appoint a tandem judge to serve side-by-side with the older justice. This formula would have allowed FDR to shift the Court's balance of power. Solomon eloquently reveals how the proposal hotly debated in Congress and characterized as a direct challenge to the fundamental principles of the Founders eventually resulted in a stunning and humiliating defeat for FDR, sharply dividing members of his own party in the process. Photos.