Harry S. Truman, thirty-third President, as Senator from Missouri
- "Speech Delivered at Kansas City, Missouri, April 19, 1937, by Senator Harry S. Truman," supporting Roosevelt's policy of "Packing" the Supreme Court and signed ("Harry S. Truman, U.S.S. Mo.")
- Paper, Ink
Senator Truman gave this speech in support of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s controversial legislativeinitiative that would allow him to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court. FDR hoped to change the composition of the court in response to New Deal legislation being ruled as unconstitutional. Officially named the ‘Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937,’ the plan would have allowed the president to appoint one additional justice for every member of the court over the age of seventy years and six months; in the end, the bill was not passed. Interestingly, Truman’s Supreme Court appointments are one of the most widely criticized aspects of his presidency and often cited as examples of political cronyism—he had close personal ties to all four justices he appointed. As a whole, this address provides great insight into the future president’s views on the American judicial system and the powers of the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court but left it to Congress to decide how many justices should make up the court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number at six: a chief justice and five associate justices. In 1807, Congress increased the number of justices to seven; in 1837, the number was bumped up to nine; and in 1863, it rose to 10. In 1866, Congress passed the Judicial Circuits Act, which shrank the number of justices back down to seven and prevented President Andrew Johnson from appointing anyone new to the court. Three years later, in 1869, Congress raised the number of justices to nine, where it has stood ever since. In 1937, in an effort to create a court more friendly to his New Deal programs, President Franklin Roosevelt attempted to convince Congress to pass legislation that would allow a new justice to be added to the court—for a total of up to 15 members—for every justice over 70 who opted not to retire. Congress rejected the plan.
“Roosevelt evidently considered this situation and wisely decided that the easiest way to meet the situation would be to get some younger men on the Court whose minds and hearts are more in sympathy with modern humanitarian thought. He suggested a reorganization of the lower Courts and an increase in membership on the Supreme Court for the purpose—a procedure followed by Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant. It is the simplest, easiest and most common-sense way of meeting an impossible situation.
"The cry is that the President wants to pack the Court. Well, if that were possible, the Court is packed now, and has been for fifty years, against progressive legislation. If you don’t believe it, read some of the dissenting opinions of Justices Clark, Harlan, Holmes, and Stone, and even Chief Justice Hughes, in whose beard certain people in this city believe reposes more wisdom than Daniel Webster had in his head. The Court was warned by every one of these eminent Justices that the very condition now confronting the Court would come about. … Anyway, it is my opinion that the Court cannot be packed. President Jefferson appointed a man by the name of Johnson to the Supreme Court and he made it his policy to be against every policy of Jefferson…Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase Chief Justice because, as Secretary of the Treasury, Chase helped write the legal tender laws. Chase decided that they were unconstitutional when he was Chief Justice. To come to more recent appointments, Wilson appointed McReynolds, a real conservative and anti-New Deal Justice. Coolidge appointed Stone—the best New Dealer on the Court—and Hoover appointed Cardozo, a real progressive who is in touch with the times. None of these late Presidents would have appointed any one of these Justices if they had known what their attitude on the Court would be. Therefore, I say the Court cannot be packed, but I HOPE WITH SOME NEW MINDS AND NEW BLOOD FRESH FROM THE PEOPLE THAT IT CAN BE UNPACKED, OR BE GIVEN A MODERN COMMON SENSE VIEWPOINT.
"It is my honest opinion, after much careful study and consideration that the President’s plan is the easiest and simplest one so far proposed to meet a situation where the Court has assumed legislative powers which in no sense it constitutionally possesses. THE COUNTRY WILL BE JUST AS SAFE, THE CONSTITUTION JUST AS STRONG, AND THE REPUBLIC JUST AS GREAT AS IT HAS EVER BEEN in its history… We will have a greater and better country when we adjust our production to our needs and give the farmer a square deal; adjust hours and wages for the proper distribution of income; take little children out of sweat shops and textile mills, and LET THE PRIVILEGES OF OUR GOVERNMENT BE FOR THE WHOLE PEOPLE AND NOT FOR JUST A FAVORED FEW.”