Franklin D. Roosevelt

Letter on the Role of the Senate in Confirming Presidential Appointments.

February 07, 1939

My dear Judge Roberts:

I feel that in justice to you and your family I should write to you in regard to the refusal of the Senate to confirm your appointment as United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia.

First of all, I tender you my thanks for the honorable, efficient, and in every way praiseworthy service that you have rendered to the people of the United States in general and to the people of the Western District of Virginia in particular.

Second, I wish it known that not one single person who has opposed your confirmation has lifted his voice in any shape, manner or form against your personal integrity and ability.

In order that you may know the full history of what has occurred, I take this opportunity to summarize the story.

On March 17, 1938, I received a letter from Senator Glass enclosing a clipping from a local Virginia paper. This newspaper article, quoting an editorial in another local Virginia paper, made the assumption that it would henceforth be necessary to receive the backing of Governor Price of Virginia before any Virginian could hope for a Federal appointment.

Senator Glass in his letter asked if Federal appointments, for which Senate approval was necessary, would be subjected to the effective veto of the Governor of Virginia.

To this I replied on March 18th, explaining to the Senator the difference between the appointive power, which is in the President, and the power of confirmation, which is in the Senate. I pointed out to the Senator that time-hallowed courtesy permits Senators and others to make recommendations for nomination, and, at the same time, that every President has sought information from any other source deemed advisable.

On March 19th Senator Glass wrote me again, covering his construction of Article II of the Constitution, and asking me again as to the accuracy of the newspaper statement. He winds up by saying, "The inference is, of course, that you approve the offensive publication which was the basis of my inquiry."

I replied to this letter from the Senator on March 21st in a personal and friendly vein. I stated that I was glad that we seemed to agree in our construction of the Constitution. I told him that I was not in the habit of confirming or denying any newspaper article or editorial. Obviously if I were to begin that sort of thing, I would have no spare time to attend to my executive duties.

I told the Senator to go ahead as before and make recommendations; that I would give such recommendations every consideration; but that I would, of course, reserve the right to get opinions from any other person I might select. I ended by asking the Senator to forget the newspaper article and wished him a good vacation and expressed the hope that he would come to see me on his return.

Subsequent to this date, I received a number of recommendations for the position of United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia—among them recommendations in behalf of two gentlemen from Senator Glass. I am not certain whether these recommendations were at that time concurred in by the Junior Senator from Virginia, but this is possible. Other recommendations were received from citizens of Virginia to a total number, as I remember it, of five or six.

The Attorney General was asked by me to report on these recommendations, paying attention as usual to the qualifications of each person suggested. I might add that your name was on this list but that at no time, to my knowledge, did you seek this office of Judge.

The Attorney General and I held several conferences with the result that we concluded that you were best fitted to fill the Judgeship.

As a result, I wrote on July 6th to both of the Virginia Senators stating that I had concluded to appoint you, that a number of gentlemen had been suggested for the place, but that I believed you to be the best fitted.

The following day, July 7th, I received a telegram from Senator Glass stating that he and his colleague would feel obliged to object to your appointment as being personally objectionable to them, and that a letter would follow. A few days later I received a letter from the Senator stating that he could not conceive any fair reason why one of his candidates had not been appointed.

It is worth noting that neither Senator on July 7th or subsequently raised any question as to your integrity or ability, and the only objection was that you were personally objectionable.

In regard to the original newspaper article suggesting that Governor Price had been given the veto over Federal appointments, this and similar stories are, of course, not worth answering or bothering about, for the very simple reason that no person—no Governor, no Senator, no member of the Administration—has at any time had, or ever will have, any right of veto over Presidential nominations. Every person with common sense knows this.

Your appointment followed, you took the oath of office, and have been serving with great credit as District Judge since then.

Your name was sent by me to the Senate in January 1939, together with many other recess appointments.

We come now to the last chapter. Your nomination was referred to the Judiciary Committee of the Senate and by the Chairman of that Committee to a Subcommittee of three. It appears from the record that both Senators from Virginia registered their objection with the Subcommittee saying, "This nomination is utterly and personally offensive to the Virginia Senators whose suggestions were invited by the Department of Justice only to be ignored." The Subcommittee reported back the nomination to the full Committee without recommendation, stating the raising of the matter of Senatorial courtesy and saying that this matter had not been a direct issue since 1913.

At a special meeting of the full Committee on the Judiciary, and before the Committee went into executive session, attention was invited to the presence of the Governor of Virginia, to the presence of two former Governors of Virginia, and to the presence of the nominee and his Counsel.

After lengthy discussion the Committee went into executive session, reopening the doors an hour later.

The record shows that at this time the Committee heard the Governor of Virginia in favor of the nominee and also former Governor E. Lee Trinkle and former Governor Westmoreland Davis; also, George M. Warren, Esq., Counsel for nominee. Thereupon the Committee, instead of hearing other witnesses in behalf of the nominee, many of whom were present, moved that a list of these further witnesses be incorporated in the record without hearing them. The Committee also agreed to receive certain letters and editorials in behalf of the nominee, and, finally, a record of designations you have received from former Governors of Virginia to sit in other judicial districts, this list including many designations of you made by former Governor Harry F. Byrd.

That was followed by your own testimony.

The privilege of making the closing and sole arguments against you was accorded to the two Senators from Virginia.

Senator Glass stated that neither he nor his colleague had formally or definitely made any statement affecting your capabilities.

He proceeded to review the newspaper reports of last March, stated that he had not communicated with the Governor to ascertain whether or not the latter had authorized the publication, and spoke of his letter to me. He went on to state that the President had not answered his question up to this date, except by sending the nomination to the Senate.

You will recognize from what I have written you that as far back as last March, in reply to Senator Glass' letters, I told him categorically that I never answered any questions relating to the credibility or otherwise of newspaper articles or editorials, and I asked him to forget the newspaper article altogether. Therefore, the statement of Senator Glass to the Committee does not square with the facts.

Continuing, the senior Senator from Virginia referred to other newspaper articles which spoke of "rebukes" to the Senators. It is almost needless for me to suggest that neither you nor I pay any attention to such excuses. Finally, Senator Glass stated, "As a matter of fact, the President of the United States did give to the Governor of Virginia the veto power over nominations made by the two Virginia United States Senators." I am sorry, in view of my long personal friendship for the senior Senator, that he has made any such statement, and I can only excuse it on the ground of anger or forgetfulness.

At the end of his speech Senator Glass says, "Mr. Cummings never had the slightest idea of giving consideration to the recommendations of the two Virginia Senators because the Governor of Virginia had been promised the right of veto on nominations that they made." Neither of these statements is true.

Senator Glass was followed by Senator Byrd who stated that your nomination was personally offensive to both Senators, in fact, "personally obnoxious."

At the very close of the Judiciary Committee hearing Governor Price stated, "Senator Glass has made a charge against me. He is entirely mistaken about it." The Governor further stated that he was not involved in the newspaper story.

The Committee thereupon abruptly closed the hearing and went into executive session, with the result, as you know, that your nomination was reported adversely to the Senate.

This brief history repeats several episodes in the history of the United States, which have occurred from time to time during the past one hundred and fifty years. In other cases nominations by former Presidents of men of outstanding ability and character have been denied confirmation by the Senate, not on the plea that they were unfitted for office but on the sole ground that they were personally obnoxious to the Senator or Senators from the State from which they came.

During this whole period Presidents have recognized that the constitutional procedure is for a President to receive advice, i.e., recommendations, from Senators.

Presidents have also properly received advice, i.e., recommendations, from such other sources as they saw fit.

Thereupon Presidents have decided on nominations in accordance with their best judgment—and in most cases basing their judgment on the character and ability of the nominee. In many cases, of course, the recommendations of Senators have been followed, but in many other cases they have not been followed by Presidents in making the nominations.

Thereupon, under the Constitution, the Senate as a whole-not the Senators from one State—has the duty of either confirming or rejecting the nomination.

It is, of course, clear that it was the intention of the Constitution of the United States to vest in the Senate as a whole the duty of rejecting or confirming solely on the ground of the fitness of the nominee.

Had it been otherwise, had the Constitution intended to give the right of veto to a Senator or two Senators from the State of the nominee, it would have said so. Or to put it another way, it would have vested the nominating power in the Senators from the State in which the vacancy existed.

On somewhat rare occasions the Senate, relying on' an unwritten rule of Senatorial courtesy, which existed in no place in the Constitution, has rejected nominees on the ground of their being personally obnoxious to their Senators, thus vesting in individual Senators what amounts in effect to the power of nomination.

In the particular case of which you are the unfortunate and innocent victim, the Senators from Virginia have in effect said to the President—"We have nominated to you two candidates acceptable to us; you are hereby directed to nominate one of our two candidates, and if you do not we will reject the nomination of anybody else selected by you, however fit he may be."

Perhaps, my dear Judge Roberts, the rejection of your nomination will have a good effect on the citizenship and the thinking of the whole nation in that it will tend to create a greater interest in the Constitution of our country, a greater interest in its preservation in accordance with the intention of the gentlemen who wrote it.

I am sorry, indeed, that you have been the victim. Against you not one syllable has been uttered in derogation of your character, or ability in the legal profession or your record on the Bench.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Letter on the Role of the Senate in Confirming Presidential Appointments. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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