I am writing my paper on President Roosevelt’s plan to increase the size of the Supreme Court in 1936. One of the aspects of my research that I find most interesting is the ways in which the public perception of the Court as a political body has changed. Before the Great Depression people, including justices, thought that legal interpretation was very straightforward. You would input the facts of the case, apply them to the law, and arrive at a decision about constitutionality. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that people began to realize that both justices’ political views and life experiences affected how they interpret the Constitution. One of the reasons why Roosevelt’s court packing plan was so strongly criticized was because he was trying to appoint justices whose constitutional interpretations were similar to his own. Today it is essentially a given that presidents from both parties will appoint justices with whom they agree politically. Conservative presidents appointing conservative justices, or liberal presidents appointing liberal justices, is no longer seen as particularly controversial, although certainly the extremity of a nominee’s views can be the cause of his or her rejection by the Senate. I was also struck by how many Americans believed that justices’ opinion on the New Deal’s constitutionality would change if they suffered more from the Great Depression. Sonya Sotomayor’s statement that her experiences as a Latina woman would aid her as a judge were controversial, but Americans in the Great Depression took it as a given that someone who had gone hungry or lost his or her home as a result of the Depression would see the New Deal as a constitutionally justified necessity in a way that people who had remained relatively untouched by the Depression would not. I think this is another example of the ways in which the Great Depression caused a reevaluation of the Constitution.
2013-2014 Presidential Fellows
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