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Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  414 Ratings  ·  45 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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Paula Ferreira Pinto
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
A primeira vez que tive conhecimento do episódio aqui detalhadamente relatado, foi numa biografia do FDR, na qual obviamente o autor não aprofundou o tema mas relatou-o da forma que me parece ter ficado cristalizada historicamente e que constitui o que se usa designar por “common wisdom”: que o “court packing” proposto no início de 1937, logo após a tomada de posse para o segundo mandato de Franklin Roosevelt, foi um erro crasso do Presidente, escorado na inabilidade jurídica do seu “attorney ge ...more
Sep 13, 2016 rated it really liked it

“Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court” is Jeff Shesol’s 2010 book focused on FDR’s “court-packing” attempt during his second presidential term. Shesol is a partner at West Wing Writers and formerly served as deputy chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. For those of us in Shesol’s graduating class at Brown University, however, he is best known as the author of the comic strip “Thatch.”

For a 529-page book focused on a seemingly de
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
Apr 16, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Brad Hodges
Jun 30, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jim Cullison
Mar 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A gripping, thoroughly researched, and most timely read on FDR's war with the judicial branch during the 1930s. Shesol is a fantastic writer, and he infuses thrilling drama into what could have been turgid material. This book should bring peace and perspective to those who are alarmed by contemporary developments. As Truman said, "the only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."
Apr 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-history
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
Jun 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics, law
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.
Geoffrey Rose
Jan 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Stephen Futterer
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a great book (4.5/5). Extremely well researched and detailed (maybe at times a bit "too"). Timely and informative. Truly an incredible historical narrative filled with twists of fate, turns of fortune, and political intrigue that should be wider known. There are many parallels to the modern Court, replete with battles along old traditional lines -- black/white, North/South, urban/rural, big vs small gov't, originalists vs those espousing a "living" Constitution. There are echoes that har ...more
Jake Hahn
Mar 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
A little drawn out and long for the small topic it covers.
Jun 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 18, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 22, 2010 rated it liked it
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.
Mar 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book very much. I think it is a great introduction to some of our current struggles with literal vs living interpretations of the constitution and the driving motives behind each. I thought the backgrounds provided for the major players was very well done. The book deals well with the good and bad of Roosevelt, highlighting both his skills, and his failings, as a politician.

The book does a good job of breaking down several of the court rulings during that period, and discussing t
Sep 26, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.

Aug 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Frank Cavanaugh
Aug 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audible
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.
Jan 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
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.

Jan 14, 2012 rated it liked it
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.
Jan 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 30, 2012 rated it liked it
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.
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.
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Pretty good. If I was more into politics/political sciences, I'd rate it higher. It was extremely well-written and detailed. I've always been interested in the 1930's/Great Depression/FDR time period, and I now know more about it than ever before thanks to this book.
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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.
More about Jeff Shesol...

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