Roosevelt Court

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Following the constitutional crisis of 1937, President franklin d. roosevelt, who had made no appointments to the Supreme Court in his first term, eventually named eight men to the bench between 1937 and 1943: hugo l. black, stanley f. reed, felix frankfurter, william o. douglas, frank murphy, james f. byrnes, robert h. jackson, and wiley b. rutledge as associate justices, and he elevated harlan fiske stone to be chief justice—more appointments than any President other than george washington.

It was assumed that Roosevelt's appointees would share his philosophy of government and would interpret the Constitution broadly to give the President and Congress adequate power to meet the nation's needs. In this the President and his followers were not disappointed. The so-called Roosevelt Court took a very liberal approach in its interpretation of the commerce power, giving near carte blanche to the federal government in any matters affecting business and labor. It abandoned substantive due process and freedom of contract, which had been the main bulwarks of conservative jurists against new deal reform legislation, and it set about revising the traditional relationships among the government, the private sector, and the individual.

Perhaps the best example of the Roosevelt Court's broad view of the commerce power is its sustaining part of the Second Agricultural Administration Act (1938). In his Court opinion upholding the wheat quota provisions of the law in wickard v. filburn (1942), Jackson abandoned the old distinction between production (essentially a local activity) and commerce, and gave the federal government the power to regulate even the wheat grown on a farm for the farmer's own use.

After having been stymied for so long by freedom of contract arguments, reformers could now look to a Court that agreed that the federal government had power to regulate the labor market, and the Roosevelt Court sustained the New Deal labor policy enunciated in the 1935 wagner (national labor relations) act. By treating labor as one of the important factors affecting interstate commerce, the Court in several cases involving the National Labor Relations Board upheld its power to impose collective bargaining and union recognition, even on plants operating within just one state. The Court also upheld the wages and hours provisions of the 1938 fair labor standards act in united states v. darby lumber company (1941).

But critics who charged that Roosevelt had replaced an autonomous judiciary with a rubber-stamp court misunderstood the fiercely independent nature of men like Black, Douglas, and Frankfurter. While they shared the New Deal perspective on commerce and labor, the Court's agenda was already changing. During the first part of the century the Court had confronted primarily economic issues; starting in the late 1930s, more and more cases involving individual civil liberties and civil rights appeared on the docket. While in general the Roosevelt appointees favored such rights, they differed significantly over how the bill of rights should be interpreted, which provisions should be applied to the states, and how far the Court should be involved in the emerging civil rights struggle.

In 1938, in his famous footnote four in united states v. carolene products co. , Stone had suggested that the courts should defer to legislatures in economic matters, but that it should impose higher standards of review in cases involving individual civil liberties and civil rights. The Court began to move in that direction during world war ii, when (with the exception of the japanese american cases), it paid more attention to individual rights than had any other Court in history. But it got bogged down over the question of whether and how the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment applied to the states.

Frankfurter, following the line set out by Justice benjamin n. cardozo in palko v. connecticut (1937), argued that there should be only "selective" incorporation of the Bill of Rights, involving only those rights that could be ranked as "fundamental." Although Black had originally agreed with this view, during the war he came to espouse the notion of "total" incorporation of all the Bill of Rights in applying to the states. The clearest exposition of this division, which would occupy the Court through most of the 1940s and 1950s, can be found in the respective opinions of Black and Frankfurter in adamson v. california (1947). Although a majority of the Court adhered to Frankfurter's rationale, in the end they adopted Black's goal with a near total incorporation of all the Bill of Rights.

Although the four Justices appointed by harry s. truman diluted the "Roosevelt Court," it is important to keep in mind how long many of Roosevelt's appointees served on the bench. In 1954, the Court that handed down brown v. board of education still had Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, and Jackson on it. Frankfurter served until 1962, Black until 1971, and Douglas until 1975. For more than three decades, all of the great decisions on reapportionment, civil rights, freedom of speech, procedural due process, and federalism bore the imprint of one or more members of the Roosevelt Court.

Melvin I. Urofsky

(see also: Constitutional History, 1933–1945; Constitutional History, 1945–1961; Incorporation Doctrine.)


Currie, David P. 1990 The Constitution in the Supreme Court: The Second Century, 1888–1986. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Curtis, Michael Kent 1986 No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Cushman, Barry 1998 Rethinking the New Deal Court: The Structure of a Constitutional Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leuchtenburg, William E. 1995 The Supreme Court Reborn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pritchett, C. Herman 1954 The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values, 1937–1947. New York: Macmillan.

Urofsky, Melvin I. 1997 Division and Discord: The Supreme Court Under Stone and Vinson, 1941–1953. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

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Roosevelt Court

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