The American people may not have known it in 1932, but when they elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they kicked off nothing short of a peaceful revolution. With Roosevelt’s presidency, the duties of the federal government were expanded and redefined. The federal government now was responsible for the economic security of the nation’s elderly with the Social Security Act, responsible for ensuring people get a minimum standard of living with the minimum wage, and empowered unions through the National Labor Relations Act. While Congress rubber-stamped Roosevelt’s agenda for his first six years in office, the Supreme Court did not.
The Supreme Court had been for quite some time subscribed to the doctrine of lassiez-faire economics, with its legal backing coming in the form of a concept called “liberty of contract”. Numerous regulations on businesses were overturned in the name of this concept, the most famous case being Lochner v. New York (1905), in which the court found that a maximum hours law passed by the New York State Legislature violated the 14th Amendment. For a majority of justices (but certainly not all), the due process clause protected the liberty of contract. On the Supreme Court in the 1930s the nine justices were split into factions as to how to proceed with legal challenges to FDR’s New Deal.
Faction #1: The Four Horsemen
The Four Horsemen consisted of Justices George Sutherland, James McReynolds, Pierce Butler, and Willis Van Devanter. These justices regularly voted to strike down New Deal laws, with Sutherland serving as the intellectual leader of the faction. This was a bipartisan group of Justices, with Republicans Van Devanter and former Senator Sutherland, and McReynolds and Butler as Democrats. They would usually win majorities by convincing Justice Owen Roberts to side with them. Sometimes, but with less frequency, they could get Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes to side with them as well. These men believed firmly in the “liberty of contract” doctrine and were interested in stopping the revolution FDR had begun. They succeeded in overturning the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Bituminous Coal Act, among others. The Four Horsemen won a unanimous decision on the former. Their actions were often deeply unpopular, and some communities hanged them in effigy.
Faction #2: The Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers consisted of Justices Louis Brandeis, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Benjamin Cardozo. This was also a bipartisan group with Brandeis and Cardozo Democrats, while Republican Stone had been Calvin Coolidge’s Attorney General. These men regularly voted to uphold New Deal laws, finding them legitimate exercises of power under the Commerce Clause. Brandeis was the intellectual leader of this faction. They succeeded in upholding the Gold Confiscation Act of 1934, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Social Security. In the latter two cases, this faction managed to get members of the Four Horsemen to vote with them.
Faction #3: Sorry, They Didn’t Get a Cool Name
Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts were the moderates of the court, with their votes often determining the outcomes of cases. Both men were Republicans, with Hughes having been the GOP’s presidential candidate in 1916. Roberts was most likely to be swayed by the Four Horsemen.
Roosevelt was deeply unhappy with the overturning of his laws, and after a landslide victory that won him every state but Maine and Vermont, he decided to spend his political capital by tackling the last obstruction to his governance: the Supreme Court. Roosevelt proposed the “court packing plan” (the story behind this one is itself a post) to sway the court more his way, but ultimately when the Supreme Court upheld a Washington state minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), which signaled a change in court thinking on “liberty of contract”, public opinion was not so easily swayed on court packing. FDR suffered one of his few political defeats on the court packing plan, but, as he almost always did in politics, he ended up getting his wish. By 1941, none of the Four Horsemen remained on the Supreme Court and the Justices overwhelmingly endorsed a very liberal reading of the Commerce Clause that would go unchallenged until United States v. Lopez (1995), when the Supreme Court found that the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 was unconstitutional as it lacked substantial impact on interstate commerce.
Leuchtenburg, W. When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court – and Lost. Smithsonian Magazine.
United States v. Alfonso D. Lopez, Jr., 514 U.S. 549 (1995).
West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937).