FDR's New Deal
Owen J. Roberts in FDR's New Deal
Owen J. Roberts (1875-1955) was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1930-45. Though he was best known for serving as the crucial swing vote on a court deeply divided over the constitutionality of the New Deal in the mid-1930s, Roberts also made other important contributions to American jurisprudence and public policy. In 1924, he served as Special Counsel in the investigation of the Harding Administration's Teapot Dome scandal, ultimately winning the conviction, for bribe-taking, of former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall. Later, in 1942, Roberts headed a special commission appointed by President Roosevelt to investigate the disaster at Pearl Harbor.
Between 1935 and 1937, Roberts shifted his position on the most critical legal question of the day—the constitutionality (or lack thereof) of the expansive new government powers granted to the executive branch by the New Deal. In 1935, Roberts—an appointee of Herbert Hoover—joined with the court's conservative majority in the Schechter Poultry case, which delivered a crushing blow to President Roosevelt by overturning much of the New Deal. Roosevelt, stymied by the court, began exploring new ways of pushing through his program by weakening the judicial branch; he ultimately settled on a "court-packing" scheme that would have expanded the bench from 9 to 15 justices. (Allowing FDR to appoint six new friendly judges would have ensured that his program would be upheld, but it would also have fatally undermined the independence of the Supreme Court.) Justice Roberts, fearing a constitutional showdown between the executive and judicial branches, flip-flopped on his position on the New Deal. When the court decided the Parrish v. West Coast Hotel case in 1937, Roberts provided the crucial swing vote in upholding a minimum wage law; no subsequent New Deal legislation was overturned by the Supreme Court. Roberts's switch, which he never fully explained on constitutional grounds, allowed the New Deal to stand and prevented a full clash of powers between the president and the judiciary.