Presidential Challenges To The Power Of The Supreme Court: From Jefferson To Obama

As the author reflected on yesterday, the 150th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as President of the United States and his taking the oath of office from Chief Justice Roger Taney, he thought of the tremendous rivalry which existed between the Taney Court and Lincoln regarding the Dred Scott Case of 1857, which asserted that a slave was property and could be taken anywhere in the nation by his or her slave owner.

And the recognition of rivalry and opposition by many Presidents to the Supreme Court during their terms of office came to mind.

Thomas Jefferson was a great rival of his cousin, Chief Justice John Marshall, and bitterly opposed the Court’s decision in Marbury V. Madison, which established the concept of judicial review. Jefferson also tried very diligently to remove Associate Justice Samuel Chase by impeachment from the Supreme Court, which ultimately failed in 1805.

Abraham Lincoln bitterly disagreed with the Dred Scott V. Sanford case of 1857, and was a constant rival of Chief Justice Taney during the years of the Civil War, as Taney and his Court made efforts to weaken Lincoln’s war powers until his death in 1864, an event applauded by many members of Lincoln’s Republican Party.

Theodore Roosevelt often spoke of the need to transform the Supreme Court, and specifically called for a constitutional amendment to limit the tenure of Supreme Court Justices while campaigning on the Progressive Party line in 1912, and was critical of Supreme Court decisions that he thought were bad for the nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was highly critical of Supreme Court decisions that limited the New Deal programs, and advocated a “reorganization” of the Court in 1937, which would permit the appointment of six new Justices, one for each Justice over the age of 70, a plan called an attempt to “pack the Court” by its critics who defeated it.

And now, Barack Obama has been highly critical of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United Case, which certainly both Roosevelts would have joined him in opposing the unlimited power of corporations to contribute to political campaigns, an idea which became law in the Progressive Era, and now has been upended after nearly a hundred years by the John Roberts Court!

So challenges to the power of the Supreme Court have occurred under many Presidents, and most specifically, under those in the past considered to be among our greatest Presidents–Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, and FDR. Barack Obama is joining great company indeed!