Franklin D. Roosevelt

Unique Franklin D. Roosevelt Holographic Document from Circa June, 1937, Signed “FDR” Twice, Regarding the 1937 Court Packing Plan and Senators’ Status



Unique Franklin D. Roosevelt Holographic Document from Circa June, 1937, Signed “FDR” Twice, Regarding the 1937 Court Packing Plan and Senators’ Status


8 1/2x11 yellow pad sheet with the names of 8 U.S. Senators and notations and check marks. The sheet
is a remarkable piece of history from 80 years ago that bears resemblance to today’s rancor over the United States Supreme Court.


The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 (the "court-packing plan") was a legislative initiative proposed by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to add more justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt's purpose was to obtain favorable rulings regarding New Deal legislation that the court had ruled unconstitutional. The central provision of the bill would have granted the President power to appoint an additional Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, up to a maximum of six, for every member of
the court over the age of 70 years and 6 months.


The “plan”, based on Roosevelt’s perceived mandate to create “New Deal” legislation, was controversial from the start. In February of 1937, The President, in response to a series of decisions striking down New Deal laws, asked Congress for authority to “pack” the Court. Not only did Republican congressmen oppose the concept on constitutional grounds, but also, some of the New Deal’s staunchest supporters were opposed. A compromise, whereby the age limit would be lifted to 75 years of age or the maximum limited to two might have passed. But Roosevelt, guided by the voters’ overwhelming choice for his second term and perhaps over-confidence, stubbornly refused a compromise. He made repeated public appearances and even a “fireside chat” to appeal the matter to the people.


In what might be viewed as a “past is prologue” set of events, the bill was held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee by Democratic committee chair Henry F. Ashurst who delayed hearings in the Judiciary Committee saying, "No haste, no hurry, no waste, no worry—that is the motto of this committee."As a result of his delaying e?orts, the bill was held in committee for 165 days, and opponents of the bill credited Ashurst as instrumental in its defeat.


The “Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937” had come under sharp criticism from legislators, law professors, bar associations, and the public. Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on the bill on March 10, 1937. After considerable delay, the Committee reported it “adversely” by a vote of 10 to 8, on June 14. Among other things, the Committee saw the bill as  “invasion of judicial power such as has never before been attempted in this country”. Not even Roosevelt’s charm at a Democratic congressional outing could mend the divisions on the bill. The full senate took up the matter on July 2, 1937. Debate was long and vicious, with the Roosevelt administration suffering a disastrous setback when Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson, a powerful supporter of the legislation, died of a heart attack.


Tensions ran high in the terrible heat of a Washington summer. At one point Indiana Democratic Senator Sherman Minton, and later a Supreme Court Justice, received a bullet in the mail wrapped in a two-foot- long piece of white scrap paper with the printed penciled message: "Sen. Sherman Minton. Don't mistake. I am educated. If you support Roosevelt's court bill we will get you-you dirty rubber stamp." The communication ended with an obscenity. On that same day Congressmen received a mimeographed ?yer asking, "What will be gained by the passage of this bill, should thousands of citizens, with blood in their eyes, converge upon the Capital of Our Nation, and exact the retribution which is rightfully and justly theirs?"

The legislative initiative ultimately failed in the Senate on July 22, 1937, 70-22.


In retrospect, contemporary observers broadly viewed Roosevelt's initiative as obvious political maneuvering. It was more a struggle of wills between the Executive and Congress. Its failure exposed the limits of Roosevelt's abilities to push forward legislation through direct public appeal. Public perception of his efforts on this bill was in stark contrast to the reception of his legislative efforts during his first term. Republicans were not the source of obstruction. Rather, opposition to the bill came from conservative Democrats from southern states. Divisions within the majority party, which had been somewhat obscured during the depression, reappeared with returning prosperity and prevented any further extension of New Deal policies on an important scale. Roosevelt ultimately prevailed in establishing a majority on the court friendly to his New Deal legislation, though some scholars view Roosevelt's victory as pyrrhic.


Of the 8 Senators mentioned below, ?ve were considered die hards, the “Bitter Enders”: Bulkley, Caraway, Chavez, Lundeen, and McKellar. While it is not possible without further research to determine the precise date of the President’s notes, it is likely that it was written sometime in June of 1937:


“Pittman. [struck through]”....Key Pittman (D Nev.)

“McKellar [check] ”...Kenneth McKellar (D Tenn)


“Chavez ? FDR” ...Dennis Chavez. (D. NM)


“Bulow- [check] Civil Service. but may be ok.”   William J. Bulow (D. SD) Bulow was Chairman of the Senate Civil Service Committee.

“Gillette -Thought abt but y Today [check] ” Guy Gillette (D Iowa)


“Lundeen ok Today-but doubtful FDR”. Ernest Lundeen (D Minn)

“Mrs. Caraway. [check] Against Today” Hattie Caraway (D. Ark)

“Bulkley. [check] ok today”  Robert J. Bulkley (D.Ohio)

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