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The President, the Supreme Court, and the Epic Battle Over the New Deal

by James F. Simon

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4165-7328-9
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

An instructive, vigorous account of FDR’s attempt at court-packing, and the chief justice who weathered the storm with equanimity.

Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) isn’t one of the more studied justices, though he presided over the Supreme Court during the historic New Deal era, and enjoyed a long, fascinating career, as Simon (Emeritus/New York Law School, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, 2006, etc.) develops in depth. An adored only son of a minister who expected his son to pursue the ministry, Hughes went instead into law, eventually setting up a lucrative practice on Wall Street. He first gained an intellectually rigorous, high-minded reputation by taking on the utilities industry in New York; courted by the Republican party, he was elected governor, and first appointed to the Supreme Court by President Taft in 1910, only to resign to run for president in 1916, a campaign lost in favor of Woodrow Wilson. After serving as Secretary of State under President Harding, he was reappointed to the highest bench by President Hoover, this time as Chief Justice in 1930. Yet he proved to be no cardboard pro-business model, and when FDR was elected amid economic mayhem during the Great Depression, the court was split. FDR’s emergency legislature during his 100 first days was challenged by the conservatives, precipitating one of FDR’s worst blunders: a court reform proposal sent to Congress that would increase the number of justices and force retirement for the septuagenarians—as most of them were. “Shrieks of outrage” greeted the dictatorial proposal, which was resoundingly rejected by the Senate. However, Simon looks carefully at the change in court direction with the threats of reform, along with Hughes’ own sense of consternation and later important decisions in the protection of civil rights—e.g., Gaines v. Canada.

A fair assessment of Hughes’ eminent career and an accessible, knowledgeable consideration of the important lawsuits of the era.