Franklin D. Roosevelt

Letter on the Court Reform Recommendation.

July 05, 1937

My dear Alben:

I am glad you called my attention to certain events of yesterday and today. Lest there be any misunderstanding in regard to judicial reform, please let me clarify the situation.

Since the untimely death of our Majority Leader, I had hoped with you that at least until his funeral services had been held a decent respect for his memory would have deferred discussion of political and legislative matters.

It is, therefore, with regret that I find that advantage is being taken of what, in all decency, should be a period of mourning.

Because of this situation, however, I am compelled in the public interest, though against every inclination, to write to you. I do this because you are the Acting Majority Leader in the Senate.

Over four years ago it became apparent to the American people and to the leadership of the new Administration of the National Government and to the newly elected Congress that grave problems of many kinds called for great reforms. The American people, in an overwhelming majority, recognized the need for bank reform, for agricultural reform, for labor reform, for housing reform and for judicial reform.

I cite the above merely as examples. Other lesser reforms went hand in hand with them as national needs. The Congress and the Administration effected during the first four years many of these reforms. The reform of the processes of justice, the need for which was nothing new, was recommended by me on February fifth of this year. The time had come to act.

In my Message to Congress I set forth objectives. With these objectives the overwhelming majority of the people of this country were in accord. With these objectives the overwhelming majority of the Congress were in accord.

Proposed tentative legislation was drawn at that time to facilitate discussion of methods in both Houses of the Congress and discussion commenced immediately in the Congress and throughout the country.

Let me make clear once more the objectives. They constituted improvements in the process of justice in all Federal courts, from the lowest to the highest. Those improvements included systematic addition of younger judges to all such courts in which there were judges beyond retirement age who had not taken advantage of retirement privileges—for the dual purpose of helping the older judges give a maximum of justice in a minimum of time, and of keeping the social viewpoints of the courts abreast of changing conditions. Those improvements also contemplated adequate machinery for supervision by the Supreme Court of the expeditious dispatch of business by the lower courts, and for getting constitutional questions to the Supreme Court without delay.

These were the objectives. At no time have I or any member of my Administration insisted that the method or methods originally proposed be sacred or final except to point out that action was of immediate necessity and, therefore, that the process of constitutional amendment was an impossibility if the objective was to be attained within a reasonable time. It is, of course, clear that any determined minority group in the nation could, without great difficulty, block ratification by one means or another in at least thirteen states for a long period of time.

Objectives can be obtained by constitutional legislation and both the original bill and Senator Robinson's bill were clearly constitutional.

There was the other reason for action by legislation rather than by constitutional amendment. The situation of the civilized world has been, for several years, at a point of extreme danger. This has been caused by three factors—aggression and armament, economic crisis and major social needs.

The United States is happily free from any thought of aggression or armament for aggression, but the people of the United States have called for economic security and for major social improvements. National safety demands them.

About a month ago Senator Robinson advised me that some new form or forms of method were called for if the objectives of judicial reform were to be attained. I told him that in my judgment the bill he proposed would be a satisfactory method of attaining such objectives. I told him further what I had told to all others who have asked my opinion—that on the Congress of the United States falls the primary responsibility for the adoption of methods but that on the President falls the responsibility of recommending objectives. This is in accordance with the Constitution.

To abandon any reform of the judicial processes at this session of the Congress means an abandonment of the objectives.

An abandonment of judicial reform, including, of Course, all the Federal Courts, because of the inability of a majority of Senators or a majority of Representatives to agree on method and reach a vote, places the responsibility squarely on the Congress of the United States.

May I, therefore, tell you very simply once more that the objectives of the President, and, I believe of the great majority of our citizens, remain the same, and that I believe that it is the duty of the Congress, and especially of the members of the majority party in the Senate and the House of Representatives, to pass legislation at this session to carry out the objectives.

Very sincerely yours,

Honorable Alben W. Barkley,

United States Senate,

Washington, D.C.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Letter on the Court Reform Recommendation. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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