Foreign Reaction to Reforming the Supreme Court, 1937

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park.

Franklin D. Roosevelt began his second term in office on January 20, 1937, the first President inaugurated on that day and month.  In February, reflecting his frustration with the Supreme Court’s numerous negative decisions on New Deal laws and programs, President Roosevelt proposed changes to the U.S. judiciary system.  While the coverage was broader, this quickly became known as FDR’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court with supporters of the administration.  Under the proposal, which he couched as an effort to increase the efficiency of the courts, the President could expand the Supreme Court by up to six justices, for a total of 15, and the lower federal courts by up to 44 new judges.  The proposal was not received well, even among the President’s supporters.  Indeed, it is considered one of FDR’s major policy stumbles.

The ensuing controversy attracted attention overseas and a few American diplomatic and consular posts submitted reports on the local reaction.  The following is the despatch from the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland.[1]

Polish comment on proposal to pack the Supreme Court
summarizes attached article from Gazeta Polska
editorial from Polish paper- describes a violent reaction to FDR's plan
details FDR plan suggesting Justices over 70 should resign
Despatch 1520, US Embassy Poland to Dept of State, Feb 23, 1937

The court-packing plan went down in flames, but the Supreme Court soon began looking more favorably on New Deal laws and programs.  Congress did pass the Judicial Reform Act in August 1937.  It made minor changes to the procedures of the lower courts but made no provisions for new justices or judges.

[1] U.S. Embassy Poland to Department of State, Despatch 1520, February 23, 1937, file 811.041/35, 1930-39 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.