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FDR and Chief Justice Hughes

The overlooked story of the hardworking justice who stood up to one of America's most popular presidents – and won a victory for posterity.

By Terry Hartle / February 9, 2012

FDR and Chief Justice Hughes: The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal By James F. Simon Simon & Schuster 480 pp.

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One of the central subplots in the history of the New Deal is the relationship between President Roosevelt and the Supreme Court. 

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In FDR and Chief Justice Hughes, James F. Simon, a professor at New York Law School who has written a number of well-received books about the history of the Supreme Court, focuses on the events that lead to this epic conflict and its aftermath. He does this by providing alternating, in-depth biographical sketches of both Roosevelt and Hughes and the paths that led them to their respective positions. The sections devoted to Roosevelt are well done but familiar given the large number of biographies about the nation’s 32nd president. 

By contrast, despite an extraordinary life and career, Chief Justice Charles Hughes is little remembered today. A graduate of Columbia Law School, his public career began with successful investigations of the utility and insurance industries in New York that lead to significant changes in both industries. This was followed by two successful terms as progressive Republican governor of the Empire State – he and Franklin Roosevelt would later greet each other as “Governor.” President Taft appointed him an associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1910 where he quickly gained a reputation as a hard-working justice who often found himself (along with Oliver Wendell Holmes) representing the liberal wing of the court, usually in dissent. 

He had been whispered about as a Republican candidate for president in both 1908 and 1912 but both times he declined to be considered. In 1916, Hughes was basically drafted as the Republican standard-bearer and had he not lost California by just 4,000 votes, he would have found himself in the White House

He declined to be drafted again in 1920 but he did accept President Herbert Hoover’s request to become secretary of state, a position he held for five years. In January 1930 – just after the start of the Great Depression that would bring Franklin Roosevelt to the White House – Hoover nominated Hughes to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. 

Simon notes that when Hughes returned to the Supreme Court he inherited four conservative and three liberal justices. Therefore, the center of gravity would be determined by its two newest members, Hughes and Associate Justice Owen Roberts. Liberals had “high hopes” for the new justices “since nothing in Hughes’s or Roberts’s records suggested that they held rigidly ideological views.” 

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