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Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court Hardcover – March 22, 2010
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Lengthier than FDR vs. the Constitution, by Burt Solomon (2009), an account of the 1937 political fracas between the president, the Supreme Court, and the Senate, Shesol’s history of the same episode expands with detail about the origin of Roosevelt’s proposal to reorganize the federal judiciary. It sprang from liberals’ infuriation with the conservative Court’s invalidation of some New Deal programs; Shesol’s quotations of New Dealers’ diaries well convey the incandescence of their fury. He also attends to Washington’s sociopolitical atmosphere, such as the Gridiron Dinner’s spoofs of the Supremes and FDR’s landslide reelection, which set the stage for Roosevelt’s hubristic moment. After providing background to FDR’s reform plan, which its opponents (and history) branded a court-packing scheme, Shesol continues with a narrative of the political battle that erupted. Characterizing defining traits of the main combatants—FDR, Chief Justice Charles Hughes, and Senator Burt Wheeler—Shesol skillfully illustrates the nexus of personality and principle, with the New Deal and the Constitution being perceived as at stake. A book sure to recruit history readers, especially those eyeing present political currents. --Gilbert Taylor
“Supreme Power is by far the most detailed―and most riveting―account of this extraordinary event.... an impressive and engaging book―an excellent work of narrative history. It is deeply researched and beautifully written.”
- The New York Times Book Review
“Starred Review. With insight and more than occasional humor, Shesol covers all aspects of the controversy, deftly explaining the issues at stake in a variety of legal opinions and shrewdly analyzing the intra-Court dynamics.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“[T]imely, for the light it casts on the politics of our current economic situation and on the situation itself. The book is also splendid to read. It will fascinate anyone who is interested in Roosevelt, the New Deal, the 1930s, Congress, the presidency, the Great Depression, judges, the Supreme Court, or constitutional law.”
- The New Republic
“Once in a generation a groundbreaking book comes along to provide a major reinterpretation of a familiar historical event. Shesol tells the story of FDR's court packing plan as it has never been told before. This is a stunning work of history.”
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time and Team of Rivals
“Written with a novelist's eye, a historian's care, and a blogger's energy, Jeff Shesol's Supreme Power is a fascinating reconstruction of one of the great political and legal battles of the twentieth century. The story of FDR's court-packing plan is a citizen's education in the twenty-first.”
- Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine
“Supreme Power is an extraordinary book that rings with relevance for our time. One of the most eloquent historians of his generation, Jeff Shesol has a deep understanding of the presidency, and the interplay of politics, personalities, and principles, all of which he brings to life in this rich, remarkable book. Full of surprises and new insights―each rendered in clear and confident prose – this book is about more than FDR’s plan to pack the Court. It’s about America’s enduring struggle to reconcile our founders’ ideals with conflicting challenges in our constant pursuit to build a more perfect union.”
- President Bill Clinton
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First of all, Shesol resists the temptation of many historians to make the past prologue. He doesn't recite the whole history of the U.S. Supreme Court, nor does he stretch historical analogies to draw "lessons" or "comparisons" for today. Rather, Supreme Power stays focused like a laser on the subject of the book, beginning in 1932 with FDR's election. This allows Shesol to really delve into detail, spending almost all of the book's 530 pages on FDR and the court. (Incidentally, if you know absolutely nothing about the Supreme Court or its history, you might want to scan wikipedia quickly before reading this book).
And the detail in the book is extraordinary. I studied FDR's court-packing scheme in law school and read the major cases discussed in the book, but I felt I learned much more reading Supreme Power than I did in 3 years of law school. For example, I had read the Schecter case, which invalidated important New Deal legislation, but I did not even know about the businessmen and activists who formed associations, such as the American Liberty League, to launch test cases like Schecter. It turns out the Schecter brothers even voted for FDR in the 1936 elections! Another fascinating trivia bit revealed early in the book is that the whole issue almost became moot because Justices Sutherland and Van Devanter almost retired in 1932 - but refused to do so when Congress lowered their pensions.
Shesol also strives - and for the most part achieves - the ideal of historical objectivity (pay the reviewer who claims Shesol is sympathetic to FDR no heed). He is quite willing to point out the flaws of the New Deal and the fact that it wasn't universally popular (raising concerns similar to Amity Shales' The Forgotten Man). He also seeks to uncover the ulterior motivations of men like Senator Burton K. Wheeler (against court-packing) and Joe Robinson (for).
However - and this I found remarkable - Shesol also tries to understand the logic and motivations behind the court-packing plan itself. All too often, historians deride the plan as a mistake or doomed to fail. Yet, Shesol shows that the plan did in fact have an organic history and genesis of its own. He discusses the longstanding concern that many observers, including former president and chief justice Taft, had regarding judges over the age of 70. In fact, FDR's chief foe on the Supreme Court, arch-conservative Justice McReynolds, proposed a similar plan during the Wilson administration. In short, Shesol shows readers the type of information bombarding the White House about elder judges, as well as how FDR and his advisors could convince themselves that adding additional judges for each over the age of 70 was a brilliant solution.
My one complaint - and it is a small one - is that Shesol does not seem to make much use of the political science literature about courts and judicial review. This is a shame. I think political science offers many compelling explanations about why elites would oppose limits on judicial review. For example, Tom Ginsburg's Judicial Review in New Democracies: Constitutional Courts in Asian Cases advances the theory that elites view judicial review as important to protect themselves if they ever become relegated to minority status (for example, Republicans becoming the minority party in Congress). Some of these theories can be found in some form in Supreme Power, but Shesol, who is primarily a historian, primarily credits the political dynamics of the 1930s for defeating FDR's plan rather than larger political and institutional forces.
Supreme Power will probably become the primary account of FDR's court-packing scheme for some time. Highly recommended for anybody interested in American history or the politics of courts.
This book has a very good companion too. That book is entitled: FDR v. The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy. Both books contain a few things not in the other, and FDR v. The Constitution is a shorter book. I recommend you read it first, and if it whets your appetite, read Supreme Power to learn even more from a slightly different perspective.FDR V. the Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy [FDR V THE CONSTITUTION COLLECT]
A very detailed analysis of the events relating to FDR's response to a Supreme Court that turned itself into a legislative body by repeatedly invalidating legislation that it did not like. Owen Roberts & Chief Justice Hughes realized how the Four Horsemen were undermining the authority of and respect for the Court & made a switch in time that saved the Court. Hughes beat FDR in the political arena. This book gives a better understanding of today's events.
Chief Justice Roberts also attempted to depoliticize the Supreme Court by not invalidating the Affordable Care Act. HISTORY REPEATS.
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