Study Guide

Judicial Branch & Supreme Court - FDR and the Court Packing Scandal

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FDR and the Court Packing Scandal

  • FDR filled Supreme Court vacancy with liberal Alabaman who had been a member of Ku Klux Klan
  • Nomination unfolded in midst of "court-packing" controversy

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had every reason to appoint Hugo Black to the US Supreme Court in 1937; Black had served, in good standing, for over a decade in the US Senate; like Roosevelt, he was a progressive Democrat who sought justice for the common man; as he proved again and again as a legislator, he was a staunch advocate for the president's New Deal policies; and, conveniently, he supported the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, Roosevelt's proposal to pack the Supreme Court with justices favorable to his administration. From a list of 54 possible candidates, including federal judges, law professors, and prominent liberal Democrats, President Roosevelt selected the Alabama-born Senator as his first Supreme Court appointee. He hoped that Black's selection would be confirmed swiftly and without debate.

Not so fast. From the moment the White House announced its nominee, the confirmation process was fraught with controversy. First—and perhaps most predictably—opponents of Roosevelt in Congress cried foul. They found the president's brash attempts to pack the Supreme Court with left wing, New Deal loyalists to be despicable. To the president's critics, the selection of Hugo Black was disappointing, frustrating, and downright horrifying—and a harbinger of even more liberal appointees to come. Second, during Black's Senate confirmation proceedings, there came revelations that—are you ready for this?—Black had been associated with the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The full extent of his relationship to the white supremacist organization wasn't entirely clear, mainly because Black himself remained tight-lipped about his mysterious past. Still, several Senators, African-American organizations, and groups of citizen protesters thought that any evidence of a connection to the Klan warranted the swift rejection of Black's nomination. Third, as if speculated involvement with a domestic terrorist group wasn't enough, some Senators suggested that Black's appointment to the Supreme Court violated the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 6, they argued, forbids any congressperson from accepting a federal position if the salary for that position has been increased by Congress while that legislator was in office; Congress had raised the Supreme Court justices' pay during Hugo Black's term.

Opposition to Black's confirmation in the Senate was unwavering but limited, and one suspects that President Roosevelt didn't much mind the controversy. After all, the brutal criticisms of Black's record proved no match for what turned out to be a strategically brilliant choice. With his selection of a progressive Democrat from Alabama, Roosevelt managed to satisfy many southern members of the party as well as pro-New Deal liberals. That unlikely coalition helped the president earn a positive recommendation for his nominee from the Judiciary Committee and, ultimately, enough votes in the Senate to secure Black's appointment to the Court. After a turbulent week of protests, accusations, and debate, Hugo Black resigned from the Senate and took his seat on the highest court in the land.

On 11 August 1937, as Roosevelt revealed to Hugo Black his plan to nominate him for the job of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the Senator asked, "Mr. President, are you sure that I'll be more useful to you on the Court than in the Senate?" Roosevelt was, in fact, certain. And despite the controversy surrounding Hugo Black's past, the constitutionality of his selection, and opposition from conservatives and civil rights organizations alike, the president remained committed to his choice.

Were Roosevelt's instincts correct? Was this Alabama native cut out for the job, or would this decision haunt the president's administration for years to come? It's certain that Black justified the concerns of some that his role as a United States Justice would be a bit unorthodox—radical, even. But this former member of the KKK definitely defied the fears of many that, to the detriment of the nation, he would prove to be racially bigoted. Ultimately, Black proved by his active support for minority rights, labor rights, and free speech throughout his long career as a Justice, that he was, in fact, a servant of the nation's people—all its people—and an outspoken guardian of civil rights and civil liberties. He was, in the end, beneficial to both Roosevelt's administration and to social progress in America. Who'd have thought?

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