February 1937

US and World Events plus Additional Resources


One of the most controversial issues in FDR’s presidency was his “court packing” plan, which he revealed on February 5, 1937. During FDR’s first term the Supreme Court became a major threat to the New Deal. A conservative 5-4 Court majority disapproved of FDR’s expansion of Federal power. In 1935-1936, these justices began striking down key New Deal laws, including the NRA and AAA, as unconstitutional. FDR feared future rulings would overturn other reforms, including Social Security.

In 1937, Roosevelt moved to remake the Court. He requested legislation empowering him to add up to six new justices for every current justice over age 70. Outraged critics, including former President Hoover, charged he wanted to “pack” the Court.

FDR explained his plan to Congress February 5, 1937. “A part of the problem of obtaining a sufficient number of judges to dispose of cases is the capacity of the judges themselves. This brings forward the question of aged or infirm judges–a subject of delicacy and yet one which requires frank discussion. In exceptional cases, of course, judges, like other men, retain to an advanced age full mental and physical vigor. Those not so fortunate are often unable to perceive their own infirmities. . . A lower mental or physical vigor leads men to avoid an examination of complicated and changed conditions. Little by little, new facts become blurred through old glasses fitted, as it were, for the needs of another generation; older men, assuming that the scene is the same as it was in the past, cease to explore or inquire into the present or the future.” To read the full text of his speech, visit the American Presidency Project.

The Senate buried FDR’s proposal in committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s report, released on June 14, 1937, denounced the measure as a “needless, futile and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle.”

The outcome of the Court fight was FDR’s greatest legislative defeat. But it became apparent that while he lost the battle, he won the war. During 1937, one conservative justice switched allegiances and began supporting New Deal legislation. This switch— and later Court retirements— let FDR shape a pro-New Deal majority without radical change. From 1937 until the 1990s the Court consistently supported a broad reading of Federal power in the economy.