On this day in 1937, Bishop William Manning, head of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, gave a rather unusual Ash Wednesday sermon. His topic: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposal to expand the Supreme Court. When Roosevelt announced his controversial “court-packing” plan (as its critics dubbed it) several days earlier, he framed it as intended to make the aging Court operate more efficiently. But everyone knew it was really designed to get enough new appointees on the bench so that the Supreme Court would no longer stand in the way of FDR’s New Deal agenda of economic reform.
“These proposals, if adopted, would be a death blow to our constitutional democracy and would destroy the foundation on which our government rests,” proclaimed Bishop Manning. He talked to his congregation about the importance of maintaining the independence of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy. The nation faces “a grave crisis” that “threatens the very structure of our government, the continuance of our democratic institutions and our liberties as a people.” “In my judgment,” the bishop said, “we face one of the most serious situations in our whole history, a situation which involves our religious liberties as well as our civil liberties…. There can be no democracy, no constitutional government, without an independent judiciary.” He urged people to “express themselves in overwhelming numbers” to their elected representatives and demand that the court-packing plan be defeated.
Congress did, in fact, vote down Roosevelt’s proposal, responding to opposition mobilized by Bishop Manning and many others who insisted this kind of political interference with the judiciary violated basic principles of the American constitutional system.
This post was drafted by ISCOTUS Fellow Zoe Arthurson-McColl, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, and was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent Class of 2018, and ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent faculty member Christopher Schmidt.