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tv   Reel America The Constitution - Whose Interpretation - 1959  CSPAN  December 19, 2020 8:01am-8:31am EST

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president franklin roosevelt's court packing proposal. in about 30 minutes, also from the columbia university series, the constitution and censorship, a 1957 film that uses two free speech cases to document the history of censorship law. in 60 minutes, a u.s. information agency film from 1960 titled the judicial power, produced for international audiences, the lesson describes the supreme court's role as interpreter of the constitution. in 80 minutes, a two thousand -- 2002 documentary on the federal courts and the challenge to slavery, detailing the legal battle that resulted after an 1839 slave ship mutiny in the caribbean that landed the ship in connecticut and eventually landed the case before the
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u.s. supreme court. ♪ >> this is the story of a struggle between a president, franklin d. roosevelt, who went to the white house on the pledge of a new deal. ♪ and a group of men, once referred to as the nine old men, presided over by chief justice charles evans hughes. the issues were large. they included the problems of a nation's industry, its people, its agriculture, its resources.
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but the immediate battlefield of the struggle was the constitution, with its checks and balances. its division of power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. this is the struggle known as the court packing fight. ♪
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on august 14th, 1935, president franklin d. roosevelt signed the social security act. its provisions included old age benefits and payroll taxes to help finance them. the president made a brief statement. pres. roosevelt: to millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, old age pensions and increased services for the protection of children -- narrator: the payroll taxes were to start in 1937. but months before that, in boston, massachusetts, in federal district court, an action was begun for attorneys for george p. davis, a shareholder in the edison company of boston. he was suing for an injunction to restrain his company from paying the social security taxes. he argued they were unconstitutional. his claims cited a 1935 supreme
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court decision. this had to do with the railroad retirement act of 1934. it had established a plan very similar to social security. payroll deductions, matching contributions by employers, all this going into a huge trust fund held by the government. and later, on retirement, monthly old age payments. ♪ but the railroads had contested the law, and the issue went to the united states supreme court. the decision, a five to four decision, was read by justice roberts. he said, "the railroads, though dedicated to public use, remain private property. their assets may not be taken without just compensation. there is no warrant for taking the property or money of one and giving it to another. petitioners constantly recur to
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such phrases as employee morale. fear of old age dependency. these matters obviously lie outside the orbit of congressional power." thus the railroad retirement act of 1934 was declared void. the court seemed to say, no such act can be found valid. yet just a few months later, president roosevelt was signing a law vast in scope and startlingly similar in design. social security. could it possibly survive a constitutional challenge? if the president had doubts about it, he did not show them. yet he had reason to doubt. not only as to social security, but as to other new deal laws as well. in district courts throughout the land, not only in boston but also in san francisco, new orleans, houston, savannah, and elsewhere, injunctions were being asked and granted against various new deal laws.
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slowly, the cases were making their way toward the united states supreme court. here is a partial record of such actions during 1935 and 1936. ♪ in the spring of 1935, soon after its ruling on railroad retirement, the supreme court took up the nra, the national industrial recovery act. this, one of the earliest new deal acts, was designed to help industry out of its disastrous deflation and unfair competition and raise wages. but the supreme court ruled it void, as involving, for one thing, an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.
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the vote was unanimous. a few months later, the court took up the agricultural adjustment act, also passed in 1933. through this law, the administration tried to limit farm production and conserve the soil while bolstering farm prices. in january 1936, the court declared the act void as an improper use of the taxing power. three justices dissented. presently, the court considered the so-called guffey coal act, an attempt to stabilize a basic industry torn with strikes and dissension. in may 1936, the court found it void, as beyond the power of congress under the commerce clause. three justices dissented. in the same month, the court considered the municipal bankruptcy act. an attempt by the federal government to assist communities facing insolvency because of falling revenues and mounting
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relief costs. in may 1936, the court found the act void as an encroachment on state sovereignty. four justices dissented. thus, in a few short months, key portions of a new deal program had been torn to shreds through court action. on the basis of past decisions, a number of other measures seemed doomed, among them the wegner act and social security. it was an election year. early in june, the republicans met in cleveland and nominated alfred landon of kansas and colonel frank knox. later in the same month, the democrats in philadelphia re-nominated roosevelt and garner. during the following campaign, the republicans often spoke of the court as the bulwark of our liberty. roosevelt, for the moment, said
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little about the court. he spoke mainly about the aims of his program. in november, langdon and knox carried two states. roosevelt and garner carried the rest. once more, roosevelt rode to office on his pledge of a new deal, but could he carry on that new deal program? >> and will to the best of your ability preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the united states, so help you god? pres. roosevelt: i, franklin delano roosevelt, do solemnly swear that i will faithfully execute the office of president of the united states, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the united states, so help me god. [cheering and applause]
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♪ narrator: it was rumored that roosevelt, battling for his program, had a plan. a plan to reform the courts, including the supreme court. two weeks later, he sent his proposals to congress and later explained them to the people. pres. roosevelt: we have reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the constitution from the court, and the court from itself. we must find a way to take an appeal from the supreme court to the constitution itself. we want a supreme court which will do justice under the constitution and not over it. in our courts, we want a government of laws and not of men. what is my proposal? it is simply this -- whenever a
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judge or justice of any federal court has reached the age of 70, and does not avail himself of the opportunity to retire on a pension, a new member shall be appointed by the president then in office, with the approval as required by the constitution, of the senate of the united states. narrator: a justice reaches 70. if he does not retire, an additional justice is added. when and if he does retire, the number returns to nine. in 1937, there were six justices over 70. thus, under the proposed law, the president would be able to appoint six extra. if the older justices decided to retire, the total number would return to nine. throughout the land, debate began. the newsreels covered the story.
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♪ >> roosevelt's plan to change the supreme court has become the greatest public issue since slavery. we bring you this exclusive statement on the supreme court itself by chief justice hughes. >> the justices of the federal supreme court are not merely titular successors in important official duty, but inheritors and developers in a continuous process of exposition, and thus they enter with the lively consciousness of fellowship into the problems, the anxieties, and the achievements of those who have preceded them in their necessary but difficult tasks, as weavers of the fabric of constitutional law. >> roosevelt considers the overwhelming vote which returned
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him to office as a mandate to carry out his policies, even to changing the supreme court. many of those who voted for him are against him on this issue. throughout the country, those for and against the plan are lining up for the fight in the united states senate. leaders of the opposition, democrats and republicans alike, replied to roosevelt's challenge. >> there can never be a dictator in america while we have a constitution and an independent court. >> our fathers feared the tyranny of an unchecked sovereign. >> if the constitution needs changing, let it be changed by the people. it belongs to them alone. >> hands off the supreme court. >> every man, woman, and child of this country will be affected as a result of the fight now raging in the senate. the constitution is not what the
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judges say it is. the constitution is not what the president says it is. narrator: while the dispute raged, the country began to examine more closely this unique institution, the supreme court of the united states. a tribunal whose membership is selected and confirmed by the other branches of government, yet has a power that is, in a sense, the ultimate power. to void as unconstitutional laws enacted by congress and signed by the president. how did the court achieve this position? the constitution does not, in so many words, assign it this power. but it does say that this constitution, and the laws of the united states, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land. what this might mean was clear to many of our founding fathers. and became clearer through events. in 1800, president john adams was defeated for reelection by thomas jefferson. jon marshall, as secretary of
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state, would be replaced by james madison. the federalists were in eclipse. the democratic republicans were on the rise. the federalists were not giving up. marshall, as one of adams' final acts, was made chief justice. in the closing hours of the outgoing administration, he was very busy signing appointments, filling newly created judgeships with faithful federalists. the commissions were sealed with the seal of the united states. but something went wrong. on the following morning, when james madison came to take over the office of secretary of state, he found the commissions still on the desk. through some error, they had not been delivered. he presently discussed the matter with jefferson, and a
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decision was made. some of the commissions would not be delivered. later, one of the appointees, william marbury, became impatient. where was his commission as justice of the peace in the district of columbia? marbury brought suit against madison. his attorneys asked the supreme court for a writ to compel the commission. if marshall issued the order, would it be enforced? if madison refused to obey it, would this not undermine the prestige of the court? ♪ in this dilemma, marshall made his decision. backed by a unanimous court, he said marbury was entitled to his commission, but that the court had no right to issue the requested writ. the constitution, said marshall, defined the powers of the court
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in procedures of this sort, and the act of congress was with the and therefore void. president jefferson and congress accepted this without protest. it gave them the victory. thus, they helped to establish the doctrine of judicial review. the doctrine that the supreme court, in settling a case, must necessarily ignore a law that it finds in conflict with the constitution. it must in effect void the law. in the opinion of justices of yesterday and today, the court should be cautious in such actions. it must void a law only if a decision requires it. most observers feel the court has sometimes forgotten this rule of caution. often mentioned as an example is the dred scott decision.
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dred scott was a slave, but his master, an army surgeon, took him to the northwest territories, where slavery was banned by an act of congress under the missouri compromise. presumably, dred scott was now free. but later, he was taken back to the south and sold. dred scott then sued for his freedom in federal court. the case went to the united states supreme court. chief justice tani read the decision. he said that a negro, even if free, could not be a citizen in the meaning of the constitution, therefore dred scott could not sue in federal court. this seemed to settle it. but tani went further. he said, the constitution makes no distinction between slave property and other property. no word in the constitution gives congress a greater power over slave property. its only power is the power coupled with the duty of protecting the owner in his
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rights. it is the opinion of the court that the act of congress prohibits a citizen from owning property in this kind in the territory is not warranted by the constitution and is void. many feel this decision made the civil war inevitable by making legislative compromise impossible. the court took the matter out of the hands of congress and virtually thrust it onto the field of battle. this was judicial review in its darkest hour. what can and should a chief executive do about a court precedent he feels is wrong and dangerous? lincoln was one of the presidents who had to face that question. in 1861, he faced it this way. he said he considered the court's ruling final only as to the case itself. he would not feel bound by it if considering further legislation on slavery. in that respect, he would work
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to reverse the decision, and it was reversed. the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery, was passed by congress in 1865 and ratified the same year. congress and the people had the last word. ♪ but there are other checks likewise provided by the constitution against the judicial power. one of these checks, seldom used, came into dramatic use in the reconstruction period. in the case of ex parte mccardle, a story of mississippi. in 1867, the south was still under military rule. union military commanders were in charge in the southern states. military courts tried cases involving civilians. in congress, the majority was determined that this military rule of the south must still continue. congress was determined to uphold the rights of the freed
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slaves. it was determined that the old southern aristocracy should not regain control. therefore, it was felt, a firm hand was needed. that meant military rule. but a supreme court decision had indicated that this might be held unconstitutional, since active military operations were long over. the issue would soon come to a test. in mississippi, william h. mccardle, a southern newspaper editor, was in prison, arrested for criticizing the military rule. he was being held for a military trial. meanwhile, mccardle petitioned a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. when it was denied, he appealed to the united states supreme court. the court agreed to hear the case. congress was alarmed. a ruling for mccardle could void the whole reconstruction program.
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at this point, congress had to resort to the seldom used constitutional clause. the supreme court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions and under such regulations as the congress shall make. in 1868, congress decided, over the president's veto, to make an exception. it decided that in habeas corpus cases, there should be no right of appeal to the supreme court. the following year, the supreme court upheld this act within the power of congress. thus on the reconstruction issue, judicial review was averted by an act of congress. ♪ now, in 1937, another congress was discussing the power of the court, a court which seemed to many a threat to the recovery program. now, a different method was under discussion for dealing with this problem.
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the reason for this was clear. observers noted that when the court was divided, the divisions often followed a pattern. certain justices were inclined to vote together. they usually interpreted very strictly the clauses in the constitution which defined the powers of congress, such as the taxing power and the power to regulate commerce. on the other hand, the other justices tended to vote together, interpreting more broadly those same clauses. the first group was called conservative. the other, liberal. between them were chief justice hughes and justice roberts. sometimes, they voted with one group. sometimes another. early in the new deal, both voted to uphold the government's money policies when gold payments had been suspended.
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but in the railroad retirement decision, justice roberts voted with the conservatives. in the decision on the agricultural adjustment act of 1933, chief justice hughes did too. in the municipal bankruptcy decision, chief justice hughes was back on the liberal side. and so it went. chief justice hughes and justice roberts. they seemed to hold the key. momentous national issues sometimes hung on two men, or even on one. throughout our history, this has often been the case. it is not astonishing, perhaps, that administrations have sometimes yielded to a temptation to change the number of judges. the constitution does not forbid such changes. it only says the judicial power of the united states shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish. the details are left to congress. at first, congress established a
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supreme court of six justices. in 1801, congress passed a law that the number should, after the next vacancy, be kept at five. the adams administration apparently hoped that jefferson, as a result, would not have a chance to appoint a justice. but under jefferson, the law was repealed, and six years later, the number was changed to seven. in 1837, because of the growth of the country, the number was increased to nine. and in 1863, under lincoln, to 10. then an act of 1866 provided for clearly political reasons that the next three vacancies should not be filled. but the number had only dropped to eight, when a new law in 1869 changed it to nine. thus it stood until roosevelt in 1937 proposed a new change. in congress, some people, while critical of the court, were just as critical of the plan.
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meanwhile, in the lower courts, legal battles against new deal measures continued. several suits attacked social security. to the new deal, these were a special concern. already, at offices set up to administer the new law, 26 million social security numbers had been established. on january 1, 1937, 26 million employees had begun to build up credits toward old age benefits. the first applications for benefits were being received and processed. would all this machinery, this huge new organization, presently have to be dismantled? eventually, the supreme court would hold the answer. here, the new deal was at the crossroads. >> my friends, neither individually nor as a party can we postpone and run from that
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fight on the advice of defeatist lawyers. [applause] pres. roosevelt: here is one third of a nation, ill nourished, ill clad, ill housed. now, here are thousands upon thousands of farmers wondering whether next year's prices will meet their mortgage interest. now, here are thousands upon thousands of men and women laboring for long hours in factories. narrator: the president fought hard. many observers doubted he could win the battle. then there came, from the united states supreme court, a puzzling development. a washington state minimum wage
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law was up for decision. it had been assumed, on the basis of previous decisions, that justice roberts would vote with the so-called conservatives. he didn't. neither did chief justice hughes. later, the same vote upheld the wagner labor act. what did this mean? would the pattern continue? on may 24 came the answer -- the decision on social security. one part was upheld by the same vote, five to four. another by seven to two. at the capitol, one senator said, this puts the last nail in the coffin of the court bill. the court bill was defeated. at least the roosevelt plan, the so-called court packing plan, went down to defeat. some observers put it this way -- the president had lost the battle, but won the war. a month after the social security decision, one of the
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older justices retired, to be followed soon by others. the complexion of the court began to change. and so the curtain came down on this group. perhaps also on an era. ♪ the new deal had turned the corner. ♪ the men who wrote this document lived in an agricultural society. it is a measure of their wisdom that their plan of government still provides us with a workable framework for decision. yet, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation has subjected the constitution to countless stresses and problems of


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