July 22, 1937 Stacking the Deck

To Roosevelt, President Wilson’s age-70 provision was the answer to his problems, and the end to Supreme Court opposition to his policies.

United States ConstitutionArticle III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution creates the highest court in the land.  The relevant clause states that “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish“.  Nowhere does the document specify the number of justices.

The United States was in the midst of the “Great Depression” in 1932, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to office. Roosevelt had promised a “New Deal” for America, and immediately began a series of sweeping legislative reforms designed to counter the devastating effects of the Depression. Roosevelt’s initiatives faced many challenges in the courts, with the Supreme Court striking down several New Deal provisions as unconstitutional in his first term.

The Supreme Court was divided along ideological lines in 1937, as it is today. “Judicial Realist” or “Liberal” legal scholars and judges argued that the constitution was a “living document”, allowing for judicial flexibility and legislative experimentation. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. first referred to a “living constitution” in 1920 in speaking of  Missouri v. Holland, a case which overrode state concerns about abrogation of states’ rights arising under the Tenth Amendment.  The “case before us” Holmes wrote, “must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago”.


“Judicial Formalists”, today we call them “Conservatives” or “Originalists”, seek to discover the original meaning or intent of the framers, of the Constitution. Formalist legal scholars and judges argue that the judiciary is not supposed to create, amend or repeal law; that is for the legislative branch. The role of the court is to interpret and uphold any given law, or strike it down in light of the original intent of the framers and the ratifiers.

In 1937, SCOTUS was divided along ideological lines, with three Liberals, four Conservatives, and two swing votes.

Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, James Clark McReynolds, made a proposal in 1914 that: “(When) any judge of a federal court below the Supreme Court fails to avail himself of the privilege of retiring now granted by law (at age 70), that the President be required, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint another judge, who would preside over the affairs of the court and have precedence over the older one. This will insure at all times the presence of a judge sufficiently active to discharge promptly and adequately the duties of the court”.

To the President, this was the answer. The age 70 provision allowed Roosevelt to nominate 6 more handpicked justices, effectively ending Supreme Court opposition to his policies.


Roosevelt’s “Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937” immediately came under sharp criticism from legislators, bar associations, and the public. Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on the bill on March 10, 1937, reporting it “adversely” by a committee vote of 10 to 8. The full senate took up the matter on July 2, 1937, with the Roosevelt administration suffering a disastrous setback when Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson, a powerful supporter of the legislation, died of a heart attack.

1-new-deal-supreme-court-grangerThe full Senate voted on July 22, 1937, to send the bill back to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where provisions for additional justices were stripped from the bill. A modified version passed in August, but Roosevelt’s “Court Packing” scheme was dead.

In the end, the President would have the last word. Over the course of an unprecedented four terms, Roosevelt would eventually appoint eight out of the nine justices, serving on the Court.

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July 20, 1969 The Man On The Moon

These guys were sending human beings 240,000 miles into space, to land on the moon and come back again, on computing “horsepower” equivalent to modern pocket calculators.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a message before a joint session of Congress, articulating a goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade.

Though he wouldn’t live to see it, Kennedy’s pledge would be realized forty-nine years ago on this day: July 20, 1969.

42194_space-shuttleToday, the accomplishments of the Apollo series of spacecraft seem foreordained, the massive complexities of the undertaking, forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, with “vision” literally requiring correction. With “glasses”.

These guys were sending human beings 240,000 miles into space, to land on the moon and come back again, on computing “horsepower” equivalent to modern pocket calculators.

Any one of countless calculations could have misfired, slinging three astronauts into the black void of space, there to spend eternity, in a flying tomb.

Apollo_11_insigniaThe 363′, 6,698,700-pound Saturn V launch vehicle lifted off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida on July 16, carrying mission commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module Michael Collins.

The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three components: a Command Module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, a Service Module (SM) supporting the CM with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a Lunar Module (LM) for landing on the Moon. The vehicle was launched toward the moon by a Saturn V rocket, designed to break apart as each of a series of rocket stages were exhausted, and separated from the main craft.

The Command/Service Module passed behind the moon at 12:21 Eastern Standard Time on July 19, firing its service propulsion engine and inserting the craft into lunar orbit.

The moon as seen from the International Space Station on July 9, 2018 H/T Alexander Gerst, NASA

Aldrin and Armstrong next moved into the LM, the only component to actually land on the lunar surface, with Collins remaining to orbit the moon in the CM.


The pair landed on a flat plain called the “Sea of Tranquility” on this day in 1969 at 4:18pm EST.  Half the world heard the words “Tranquility base, the eagle has landed”. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface six hours later, with the words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”.

charter-jet-gene-cernan-moonThese first two humans to set foot on the moon spent about 2½ hours on the surface. The pair collected nearly 50-lbs of material for transport back to earth, planting the American flag where it most likely remains, to this day.

Two days earlier, White House speechwriter William Safire had written an address, a speech to be delivered by President Richard Nixon, in case of failure. Twenty-five years earlier on the eve of the D-Day invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower penned a letter, taking personal responsibility for the mission’s failure. Like Eisenhower’s letter, President Nixon’s speech was never delivered.  The speech was entitled, “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER”

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding”…

The course of events envisioned by Richard Nixon’s speech writer, never came to be.  The upper part of the Lunar Module lifted off 21½ hours later, returning Armstrong and Aldrin to the Command Module.  Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins returned to earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.  Three astronauts had made history.  The United States had had the last word in the space race, with the Soviet Union.

The Apollo 17 Saturn V rocket was the last human flight to the moon
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