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.

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.

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

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.” 

During Hughes’s first two years as chief justice, it was difficult to determine the direction of the court because the new judges sometimes sided with the liberals and other times with the conservatives. However, in a series of decisions beginning in May 1935, the court – with Hughes sometimes supporting the majority -- began to strike down key pieces of New Deal legislation, including the Railroad Retirement Act, the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. 

After Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936, he quickly sent Congress a plan to allow him to appoint one additional justice for every member over the age of 70. Ostensibly designed to ease the heavy workload facing the justices, the proposal was really designed to allow Roosevelt to “pack” the court with nominees likely to uphold the New Deal. 

The idea quickly encountered resistance from Democratic political leaders and the public and was rejected by Congress. Chief Justice Hughes played a quiet but important role in defeating the president’s plan when he sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that demolished the administration’s central argument that the Supreme Court was having trouble managing its workload. “ 'The Supreme Court is fully abreast of its work…’ he wrote, ‘There is no congestion on our calendar.' ” 

Equally important, the court began to uphold key pieces of the New Deal – beginning with the National Labor Relations Act – which undermined the criticism that it was fossilized. Even more important, the conservative justices began to retire which gave President Roosevelt the opportunity really wanted – to appoint more liberal judges.   

Roosevelt would later claim that he lost the battle to pack the court but won the war. Simon, however, concludes that Hughes was really ‘the victor.” More specifically, “he astutely steered the Court away from the outmoded constitutional interpretations that had obstructed progressive social and economic legislation. The Chief Justice also demonstrated that he was a wiser statesman than Roosevelt. With dignity, he successfully defended his institution’s dignity and independence, withstanding the taunts and repeated attacks by the most popular president in modern American history.” 

This is fascinating history because it raises a fundamental question that we are wrestling with today: the relationship between the president and the Supreme Court on complex, controversial, and vital matters of public policy. It is carefully researched and extremely well written – even the detailed descriptions of the legal reasoning behind the decisions are exceptionally readable. Even the most knowledgeable readers will come away with fresh perspectives and new ideas about this key episode in American history. 

It is also valuable because it brings Charles Hughes back into public focus. He had a long and remarkable career but is little known today. Indeed, the last significant biography of him was written about 60 years ago.  History has a way of overlooking individuals and events that were instrumental in shaping the country that we live in today. Thanks to James Simon, the life and legacy of Justice Hughes is likely to receive renewed and welcome attention.    

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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