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Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

3.92 of 5 stars 3.92  ·  rating details  ·  309 ratings  ·  36 reviews
Roosevelt’s fiercest, most unyielding opponent was neither a foreign power nor “fear itself”—it was the U.S. Supreme Court.

During Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, a narrow conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several key elements of the New Deal legislation. In February 1937, Roosevelt retaliated with an audacious plan to expand the Court—to subdue
Hardcover, 656 pages
Published March 22nd 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2010)
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Community Reviews

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So, as it turns out, Franklin Roosevelt hated old people. Ok, maybe that's a lie, but age did play a factor in the bout between FDR and the 'nine old men' (as the justices came to be known during this supreme court debacle).

My super simple history summary goes something like this: FDR wins in landslide, and the Dems take both houses of Congress. However, there's this whole third branch still to contend with (at least according to the School House Rock classic Three Ring Government) which keeps
Brad Hodges
Ah, to be a Democrat in 1937. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just been re-elected with an astonishing 61 percent of the vote. The Democratic majority in the Senate was massive--76 of the 96 were Dems. Roosevelt had, in his first term, pushed through sweeping legislation designed to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, and with such a super-majority in Congress it was not unthinkable to imagine that he could continue to do so. Only one thing stood in his way--the Supreme Court.

Jeff Shesol, i
One thing you will take from this book is that people like the Supreme Court when the Supreme Court agrees with them. If the Court makes a contrary ruling, it's an evil institution.

And during the early 1930s, the Supreme Court was getting on Franklin Roosevelt's bad side a lot, invalidating numerous parts of the New Deal. Roosevelt tried to remedy the situation by creating six more vacancies on the Court. Roosevelt would have his majority then.

The plan fell apart because Roosevelt made some horr
Aaron Million
Even-handed look at FDR's somewhat misguided, and ultimately unsuccessful (or was it?) attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937. The book is primarily told from FDR's and his administration's vantage point, but Sheshol does not let that color his description of the events that transpired. There was plenty of finger-pointing and attempts to mislead on both sides. FDR's bill itself was voted down, but he ultimately did get what he wanted - which was a liberal Supreme Court, one that would speci ...more
Andrew Riley
This book covers a lot of ground, masterfully. It is at once a history of the 1937 "Court-Packing Plan," an ethnography of FDR's Cabinet, an assessment of the status of the New Deal toward the end of the 1930s, and a frank biography of Roosevelt himself. Incredibly detailed, it's the perfect read for a law or politics buff, FDR admirer, or student of the New Deal; despite its length, it's a hard book to put down.
The author gives more information about the Court than about FDR,which works. You get a definite sense of the justices' personalities. There is a tendency to jump around in time, however, which can be a little confusing, and the author doesn't really have a good sense for sorting out compelling details from non-compelling details.
Geoffrey Rose
Fantastic and surprising relevant for our own times, Shesol's story of the failure (or success?) of Roosevelt's court packing plans has the dramatic tension of a great novel. It was difficult to put down. Strongly vivid descriptions of FDR and Charles Evans Hughes among other luminaries. Highly recommended.
Jon Edward
Americans look on the Supreme Court much the same way Roman Catholics are meant to look on the Pope -- as infallible. However, when FDR and Congress began establishing the New Deal protections for laborers and means for re-building a broken economy, the reactionary Supreme Court viewed themselves as having veto power over the other two branches of government. In order to re-establish a correct system of checks and balances, FDR proposed a system whereby the number of Supreme Court justices could ...more
I was a little surprised by how narrow and tight was the focus of this book. I guess I let myself believe this book would talk more broadly about the history of the supreme court or even more broadly about the presidency of FDR. Instead the book covered several years (~36-~38) mostly during FDR's second term. The action and insight of the book was almost entirely focused on the supreme court and FDR's court packing plan. I know this was what was blurbed for the book but I was surprised that ment ...more
Numerous books have been written about Franklin Roosevelt's effort to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937. Jeff Shesol's is not only the latest but it ranks as the best. He does an excellent job of tracing the origins of the plan to the legal and constitutional battles over New Deal legislation in the mid-1930s, battles which threatened the very core of Roosevelt's agenda. He describes the cases in clear and accessible prose, bringing both the personalities of the major figures and their ideologies ...more
Kris Fernandez-everett
really did give me a lot more clarity on that question i'd asked myself about the 1937 session of the supreme court ever since 11th grade AP american history -- what exactly compelled Hughes and Roberts to find their ways away from the conservatives on the court and over to the liberals? 500+ pages later, i have a more justifiable opinion of what happened, perhaps -- but as the author of the book denotes, leading from the supreme court is a mixture of passion and dispassion... so my opinion is j ...more
Alan Braswell
Excellent and engaging read. FDR tried to use his power as president to stacked the Supreme Court in order to get his agenda through.
It shows how the president is not above the law.
Fabulous work. This story really gets into the machinations of FDR's Court packing plan. He and his administrators put a lot of thought and foresight into this endeavor. Shesol paints a gorgeous picture of the whole situation from start to finish. It can appear that the judicial branch of the government is not as beholden to the checks and balances system the Constitution mandates; at least the judicial branch checks the other two branches but sometimes seems immune to BEING checked by the other ...more
Superbly written political history of FDR and his battles against the Supreme Court, particularly around New Deal legislation and FDR's plan for packing the court.
If you enjoyed "The Nine", then you'll like this book. This book was well researched. It's uncanny how similar the court and the politics are today compared with FDR's day. The author adeptly demonstrates how political the Supreme Court Justices were. FDR's plan to pack the court was fascinating. The book is long and the author details many of the court's decisions, commenting on the majority and dissenting opinions. It became a bit too much for me after a while and I went into fast skim mode.
Frank Cavanaugh
8/10 6-8-14 Incredibly detailed account of Roosevelt's failed attempt to "pack the Supreme Court" by adding six new justices. The book details why Roosevelt thought it was necessary, the alternatives considered, the political players, the persuasions employed and in the end why it failed. It is as surprisingly interesting as it is incredibly long. Definitely not an afternoon read but if you a a history buff interested in this period, it is well done.
This book took me quite a long time to read. To describe some of the material as dry might be an understatement. I plodded through it because I do care about the Supreme Court and what exactly happened in 1937. However, if you have no interest in the Court you are going to hate this book. It’s a very detailed look at a very narrow issue over a short period of time. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, take a chance. If not, stay away.

I very much enjoyed this discussion of the politics of Roosevelt's court packing plan. While the author touches on the ideological issues of the court decisions on the New Deal legislation but did not analyze them so that readers who are looking for that kind of treatment would be disappointed. But it did discuss in detail the the congressional history of the bill and why the entire episode is clearly not
Roosevelt's finest hour.
Catherine Woodman
Great book, very approachable writing style, and written from the perspective of FDR on the court (this came out the same year as 'Scorpions', which is written about the FDR court as well, but from perspective of the justices rather than the executive branch, so the two books form a nice pair). I liked the content of 'Scorpions" better, but this one is a really nicely written book that is more approachable.
descriptive, informative, and shocking!!! This book which gives you an inside look at the inner workings of Washington D.C. and the plan to pack the Supreme Court during the run up to the president introducing the "court packing bill" and the aftermath that ensued. This book can give you an insight to how politics worked in the 30s and also how the Supreme Court is deceptively a political institution.
Outstanding -- for a story with limited "action", this book is unusually compelling. Especially impressive is Shesol's predilection for presenting and then challenging or confirming conventional wisdoms/myths. Hugely informative, not only about this seminal but widely unknown conflict but also about the interwoven workings of legislature, politics, even rhetoric.
This is the true story of Franklin Roosevent and an intractable Supreme Court that continued to strike down the New Deal. Roosevelt's solution was to pack the court with more justices. The book details the firestorm that erupted over the proposal, and how the older justices ultimately retired, and Roosevelt's picks took over the Supreme Court.
The first 300 pages of this book get five stars, the last 230 pages get two or three stars. The last 230 pages are concerned with the political fight within the Senate to kill the court packing bill, a subject which was of far less interest to me than how the fight came about at all, which is the subject of the first half of the book.

Fairly interesting, but this book is much more about the politics around the court-packing scheme and not the actual legal ramifications. I would have liked a bit more discussion about what flaws in the programs considered actually drove the legal considerations and then also how the rulings from the court were constructed.
I would have preferred some more on the on the decisions of the Court itself, as opposed to so much on who said what when. e.g there's too much on what newspapers were saying after a certain day or speech rather than some discussion of the actual developments in jurisprudence between Nebbia and Parrish.
This book was very good. I felt like it covered the episode fairly. I also like that it didn't make FDR out to be a saint, nor to be a madman. It also helped to understand current politics and how political minds think to get changes in society and to help society, or their way of helping.
Aug 02, 2010 Vaughn rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2010
I suppose no age is free from shenanigans. I was unaware how "crafty" FDR was, and was interested to see how weather and untimely death could frustrate the designs of man.

This book has some eerie parallels to our current President and associates.
An interesting insight into FDR's quest to expand the Supreme Court. I particularly enjoyed the explanation of the national state that lead FDR down this path. At times, the book could have been more concise, especially in the epilogue.
David Mitchell
Still my favorite book I've read so far. While yes it is biased toward portraying FDR's motives behind packing he Supreme Court in a positive light, it is however extremely informative and engaging.
A bit dry accounting for a very critical moment in FDR's administration. It is at its best in the biographical accounting of the main players (Wheeler, Cummings, Roberts, Holmes, Robinson, etc.).
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Jeff Shesol is the author of Supreme Power and of Mutual Contempt, a study of Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy. He was a speechwriter in the Clinton administration and lives in Washington, DC.
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