Why Pack the Courts When You Can Recall Constitutional Decisions

February 17th, 2014

Franklin wasn’t the only President Roosevelt with a disregard for the independence of the judiciary. His cousin Teddy frequently spoke out against the courts that thwarted his progressive agenda. In fact, shortly after he announced that his “hat was in the ring” for his third run at the Presidency, against his former friend President William Howard Taft, Roosevelt proposed allowing hte people to recall constitutional decisions!

The Bully Pulpit retells the speech Theodore Rex gave in Columbus, Ohio on 2/21/12:

Near the end of his speech, however, Roosevelt introduced a radical proposal that demolished any prospect of securing support from a broad party base. “When a judge decides a constitutional question, when he decides what the people as a whole can or cannot do, the people should have the right to recall that decision if they think it wrong,” he insisted. Time and again, he had witnessed “lamentable” judicial decisions by state courts, which had declared laws designed to secure better conditions for laborers unconstitutional. It was “foolish to talk of the sanctity of a judge-made law,” he pointed out, when such cases were often the product of a divided bench, with “half of the judges” fervently condemning the outcome. “If there must be a decision by a close majority,” Roosevelt suggested, “then let the people step in and let it be their majority that decides.”

Why pack the courts when you can just recall decisions you don’t like? Though, Roosevelt was careful not to apply this program to the Supreme Court.

Update: Roosevelt’s opponent, President Taft, was a steadfast supporter of the independence of the courts. Taft had served on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and (believe it or not) his true aspiration was to be Chief Justice of the United States, rather than President. He would eventually realize that goal. Taft forcefully rejected Colonel Roosevelt’s proposals in powerful language:

As the battle for the nomination began, Taft was immensely relieved that the Colonel’s radical Columbus speech provided the opportunity to distinguish his own position “without indulging in any personal attack.” Though he agreed with many of the Colonel’s proposals on capital and labor, he had felt that the initiative and the referendum were problematic and was “unalterably opposed” to “the recall of judicial decisions.” In a letter to Charley, he noted that Roosevelt had “stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest of disapproval.” The issues were now “sharply defined,” clearing “the political atmosphere wonderfully.” Meeting with Roosevelt’s friend Henry White in early March, Taft vowed that his campaign would remain a battle of ideas. Indeed, he hoped that “when all this turmoil of politics had passed,” he and Roosevelt “would get together again and be as of old.”

Speaking in New York, Boston, and Toledo in the late winter and early spring, Taft deployed a series of metaphors to illuminate the inherent dangers in subjecting judicial decisions to “the momentary passions of a people.” In one late winter speech, he warned that judicial recall would topple “the pillars of the temple.” In subsequent addresses that spring, the president warned that such action threatened to smash “the ark of the covenant” and that it laid “the axe at the foot of the tree of well ordered freedom.” Defending his beloved judiciary, Taft found his voice. At the State House in Boston, he enjoyed the most “genuine ovation” of his speaking career. “One cannot adequately describe,” he told Charley, “the manner in which my speech was received without using extravagant expressions.”