THE SUPREME COURT IN THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT by William E. Leuchtenburg

THE SUPREME COURT IN THE AGE OF ROOSEVELT

Essays on the Constitutional Revolution
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Elegant, if duplicative, essays by an eminent historian on how FDR's Supreme Court transformed the federal judiciary and reinvented the Constitution. In nine essays, most previously published, Leuchtenburg (History/Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; In the Shadow of FDR, 1983, etc.) traces the origins of FDR's ill-fated Court- packing plan to two relatively obscure cases decided by the Supreme Court in May 1935: the ``railway pension'' case, in which the youngest justice, Owen Roberts, sided with the elderly conservative majority to dispute Congress's power to pass social legislation under the Commerce Clause; and the case of ``Humphrey's Executor,'' in which a unanimous Court held that FDR had no right to fire the reactionary head of the Federal Trade Commission. These two cases convinced FDR that he needed younger, more liberal, and more deferential justices. So he and his advisors considered a variety of options, among them a constitutional amendment permitting him to pack the Court with an unspecified number of additional justices. Leuchtenburg captures the heady atmosphere of the FDR White House, as Attorney General Homer Cummings and various advisors submitted top-secret memoranda to FDR and conferred exhaustively on numerous proposed amendments. He also succeeds in portraying FDR as a brilliant, perverse, vindictive chief executive, who delighted in shocking his own administration, most memorably by nominating former KKK member Hugo Black to fill the first vacant seat on the Court. But Leuchtenburg spends too much time on public reaction to the court-packing scheme and not enough on the major cases and players. A more serious flaw is the failure to link the essays into a single narrative. In his preface, Leuchtenburg notes, somewhat disingenuously, that he has included redundant details ``so that readers will understand the context.'' But because the essays are presented chronologically, the book invites cover-to-cover reading, which becomes disjointed and repetitive. Individually, the essays are quite often accomplished, but they don't coalesce.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-19-608613-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995




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