Joe Biden
President Joe Biden leaves after speaking at a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

After four congressional Democrats introduced a bill expanding the Supreme Court, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of trying to pressure the current Justices. “It’s not just about whether this insane bill becomes law. Part of the point here are the threats themselves,” said the Kentucky Republican who always evinces a tender concern for the sanctity of the Court. “The left wants a sword dangling over the Justices when they weigh the facts in every case.”

Well, yeah.

I agree with McConnell that packing the Court would be insane. Allowing one party to determine control of the Supreme Court whenever it controlled the White House and Senate would destroy the legitimacy of the entire judiciary, if not the underpinning of our constitutional government. Threatening to pack the Court, however, is perfectly sane, and may already be working. Count me in.

Prior ideologically driven attempts to either pack the Court or strip powers from the Court never became law. But they appear to have influenced Court behavior. As my colleague Daniel Block explained last fall, “In the mid-1950s, the liberal Warren Court backed away from protecting victims of McCarthyism because a popular Senate bill threatened to strip the Court’s powers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, conservative politicians flooded Congress with legislation to stop the Court from ruling on racial integration. The justices retreated from enforcing busing regulations.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 court-packing scheme came in response to rulings that shut down New Deal programs and curtailed federal government power. FDR’s bill was rejected by Congress—even though Democrats controlled 71 of 96 seats in the Senate. But after its introduction the Court began to uphold New Deal laws. Historians continue to debate whether FDR lost the battle but won the war. Understanding what happened then is instructive for determining how far Democrats should go today.

In the June 1936 Tipaldo case, decided on a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down a women’s minimum wage law in New York State. The decision was part of a long line of rulings based on the principle that employers and employees have the “freedom” to forge contracts, and any “[l]egislative abridgement of that freedom can only be justified by the existence of exceptional circumstances.”

Roosevelt announced his plan to expand the Court on Feb. 5, 1937. Fifty-two days after FDR’s move, the Supreme Court ruled in the Parrish case that Washington State’s minimum wage for women was constitutional. As the law was very similar to the one struck down nine months before, the ruling amounted to a complete reversal. Between the two cases, Justice Owen Roberts moved from the conservative to liberal position, a move that became known as the “switch in time that saved nine.”

Parrish was followed in April with the Court’s upholding of FDR’s National Labor Relations Act. Then in May, Social Security was also deemed constitutional. Even though in July the Senate sent the court-expansion bill back to committee, to be filleted, the Court was no longer an obstacle to the New Deal.

That chronology of events suggests FDR’s bill moved the Court. Roosevelt himself championed that narrative in an introduction to a volume of his public papers: “The Court began to interpret the Constitution instead of torturing it. It was still the same Court, with the same justices. No new appointments had been made. And yet, beginning shortly after the message of February 5, 1937, what a change!”

But FDR left out two key data points. One (most likely unbeknownst to FDR) is that Roberts executed his switch in December 1936—before FDR’s message. In a 1945 memo, Roberts explained that the December vote wasn’t immediately made public because one Justice was ill. The Court could have deadlocked 4-4 and still have upheld Washington State’s minimum wage law, because it would have left in place a lower court ruling, but the Justices knew their absent colleague would also support the law and they wanted a majority 5-4 vote.

We can say that FDR’s announcement did not pressure Roberts to switch, since the switch came first. What remains a source of scholarly debate is whether speculation in the press about a forthcoming court-packing plan, in the immediate aftermath of FDR’s landslide 1936 re-election win, nevertheless pressured Roberts to switch. If not, was there already evidence of doctrinal evolution by Roberts, and other Justices, in the midst of Depression and modernization, which culminated with the springtime 1937 liberal rulings? (For a deep dive into this debate, read this series of essays in the October 2005 edition of the American Historical Review.)

Roberts himself gives conflicting evidence. On one hand, he insisted in his 1945 memo (published posthumously 10 years later) that in the two minimum wage cases, he didn’t switch at all. He just wasn’t asked in Tipaldo, the first case, to overrule the 1923 Adkins opinion—which struck down a law passed by Congress establishing a minimum wage for Washington, D.C.  But the second case, Parrish, did confront Adkins directly, and then Roberts made his view known. He admitted he could have taken the “proper course” and written his own concurring opinion for Tipaldo plainly stating his view, and neglected to give a reason why he didn’t.

FDR biographer Kenneth S. Davis, in FDR, Into the Storm 1937-1940, found Roberts’ belated explanation “disingenuous” and “desperately contrived … made solely for the purpose of protecting the Court against a probable attempt to drastically limit its powers.” And, as Block noted, Roberts acknowledged in congressional testimony that he was “fully conscious” of how the “court-packing plan” put “tremendous strain and threat to the existing Court.” Roberts didn’t say he switched because of that strain, but those dots seem very connected.

The other data point FDR left out of his narrative is the political damage he suffered as a result of his bill’s decisive rejection by the Senate. Many FDR allies in the chamber urged him to stand down after the switch, but he greedily persisted and paid a steep price.

In Roosevelt’s Purge, the historian Susan Dunn explained how the defeat emboldened the conservative anti-New Deal wing of the Democratic Party, mere months after Roosevelt’s historic 24-point election victory in 1936: “Gleefully, they banded together to sabotage the rest of the New Deal, voting down Roosevelt’s progressive tax measures, abolishing the graduated tax on capital gains, killing his proposal for seven regional agencies patterned after the TVA, tearing apart his executive reorganization plan and burying in committee his Fair Labor Standards Act.” Davis sharply concluded, “his sadly mistaken court-packing effort effectively ended the New Deal as a reforming, transforming social force[.]” FDR can’t cheerily claim he won the war for the Court, if in the process he lost the war for his agenda.

How should Democrats apply the FDR lessons? As the chess adage goes, “the threat is stronger than the execution.”

We can’t cleanly separate and sort out what factors influenced Roberts, but we do know that FDR’s announcement wasn’t one of them, because it was after the fact. Moreover, FDR’s proposal was immediately unpopular: 47 percent in favor, 53 percent opposed in an early March 1937 Gallup poll. After the “switch” became public, support further declined. Despite FDR’s electoral mandate, his attempted power grab depleted his strength. But beforehand, the landslide election and speculation over court-packing was likely helping to move the Court his way. If FDR hadn’t announced a specific proposal, he probably would have gotten the same results from the Supreme Court, without shattering his congressional coalition.

Today’s congressional Democratic leadership has kept their distance from the court-packing bill. Leaning on the President’s new blue ribbon commission exploring non-specific judicial reforms, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she has “no plans to bring [the bill] to the floor.” This is wise. FDR couldn’t move public opinion in favor of the bill, and he won his election by 20 more points than Biden. While there are far fewer conservative Democrats today than in 1937, a move to a floor vote could well have split the Democrats and harmed the rest of their agenda.

But McConnell is correct that the threat still looms—which is a good thing. What if the Supreme Court moved in a radical right-wing direction now that it has a 6-3 conservative majority? What kind of backlash would materialize? Could it lead to big Democratic gains in the upcoming elections and give Biden a greater mandate to pack the Court than FDR had? The conservative Justices can’t know for sure, and they may not want to test the proposition with a slew of provocative rulings.

John Roberts has shown for almost a decade that he’s happy to lead the march in a conservative direction, but not too quickly, avoiding some incendiary cases and defusing others—most notably, preserving Obamacare in 2012. This could explain why the Court has kept punting on the Mississippi 15-week abortion ban case. If the Court’s conservatives are ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, right now they would take the case. If they want to avoid needless divisiveness and protect their legitimacy, they will leave it alone.

So long as the latter strategy appears to be in effect, that strongly suggests the conservative Justices see the dangling sword. Biden, Pelosi and Schumer are wise to keep it sheathed, and keep them guessing.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.