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SUPREME COURT RESTORATION

A president, facing a radically right-facing United State Supreme Court, goes to the American people calling for reforming the Court. This is President Joe Biden following the bombshell decision revoking the rights of women to have an abortion, right?

In fact, this was equally true of President Franklin D. Roosevelt eighty-five years ago in 1937. Led by a group of conservatives, referred to as the Four Horsemen, the Supremes had repeatedly overturned New Deal legislation designed to pull the nation out of the Great Depression in favor of private corporations and against a more active role from the federal government in the economy. After winning a landslide in his re-election campaign and with Democrats in solid control of the Congress, FDR was determined to have a showdown with the Court.

Roosevelt ironically based his plan on one originally developed by ultra-conservative Justice James C. McReynolds from Todd County. McReynolds had developed a plan, never pursued, to expand the numbers of justices on SCOTUS during his brief tenure as attorney general during Woodrow Wilson's administration. This plan, announced at the start of the new Congress, shocked lawmakers and the public. Though many Americans objected to the Court's opposition to the New Deal, "packing the Court" brought significant criticism.

As it turned out, the fate of the president's plans would be determined in the Senate where Republicans and conservative Democrats were formidable opponents. The Senate majority leader, Joe Robinson from Arkansas, took the lead on reform. He was ably assisted by Kentucky's two Democratic senators, assistant majority leader Alben Barkley from Paducah and Marvel M. Logan from Bowling Green.

The struggle continued through the dog days of the summer at a time when public buildings lacked air conditioning. Joe Robinson fell victim to the heat and the intensity of the political crisis, dying in mid-July. Barkley, a strong FDR supporter, won the vacant majority floor leader post by a single vote in the Democratic caucus, a position he held until after the 1946 elections. One of his initial tasks was to convince Roosevelt that the court reform plan could not pass the Senate.

However, the fight did have results that benefited FDR and New Dealers. A new majority, cobbling together liberal Democrat justices on the Court with moderate Republicans led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, signaled that the Four Horsemen's check on New Deal initiatives was over.

Expansion of the Supreme Court is still possible today as a remedy against a Supreme Court majority seemingly intent on rolling back established constitutional rights on matters such as abortion, same sex marriage, contraception and other matters not specifically set forth in the Constitution. In the outcome of this present crisis is the continuation of this country's more than two century commitment to the rule of law threatened by the current SCOTUS approval rating of approximately 25% (which most certainly will plummet further).

President Biden and congressional Democrats, however, face a steeper climb than did FDR's failed effort. Lacking a clear majority in the two chambers and with mid-term congressional election campaigns already in progress, court reformers would have to call on the electorate to assert itself in the middle of what certainly would be a long, arduous controversy.

Kentuckians are once again in the center of the crisis. Senator Mitch McConnell, as leader of the GOP caucus, has done much to manipulate his body's rules to put three pro-life justices on the Court. Voters can now weigh in to the matter in several ways in the upcoming November elections if they disagree with the direction of the Court and its radical right allies. First, they can vote for pro-choice Democrats, especially Charles Booker in the U.S. Senate so that Democrats can hold onto power in that body and put into federal law the guarantees of Roe v. Wade. Second, they can vote against the constitutional amendment that would prohibit any ruling giving a woman a right to abortion under the Kentucky constitution.


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