[FOUNTAIN]Lessons for court reform“You grumpy, stubborn old men!” In February 1937, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 55 years old, thus exploded in fury at the justices of the Supreme Court.
Mr. Roosevelt thought that overproduction caused the Great Depression, which lasted for eight years. His diagnosis was that income disparity lowered people’s consumption capability, while monopolies and oligopolies in the finance and distribution industries paralyzed the functioning of the market.
So he gave government subsidies to farmers to discourage them from farming. He also tried to boost workers’ consumption ability by introducing a minimum wage. The government intervened in the market to restrain the monopoly and oligopoly regime of the financial bigwigs.
Americans approved of Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal policy, overwhelmingly re-electing him to a second term in 1936. His Democratic Party won 80 percent of the seats in Congress.
It was the nine justices of the Supreme Court who were a real pain in his neck. To Mr. Roosevelt, the court looked like a hermit group reciting the trite values of the constitution as if they were religious doctrine, such as small government, the freedom of private contracts and inviolability of property rights. The court ruled 11 of 16 New Deal bills unconstitutional.
The justices’ average age was 71; in addition, the constitution guaranteed them life tenure. Mr. Roosevelt lamented the limitations on his power because he could not replace any of the justices in his first four-year term.
Mr. Roosevelt’s fury was expressed in a plan to reform the court that overstepped the bounds of the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. He demanded a right to appoint an additional justice for each of the sitting justices who were 70 or older, thus adding justices at his disposal. But the plan soon backfired, amid a storm of criticism.
The collision between Mr. Roosevelt and the Supreme Court was settled dramatically as the justices subsequently made progressive rulings reflecting the changing times, and the president retracted his plan. The president made a compromise with the court that tried to protect constitutional values. I hope the conflict between President Roh Moo-hyun and Chief Justice Choi Jong-young can be settled in this manner.
by Chun Young-gi
The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.