Then on February 4, 1937, just two weeks after he had been inaugurated for a second term, FDR summoned the Democratic congressional leadership to the White House and unveiled his plan: For each judge over the age of 70–on the Supreme Court or for any other federal court–the president would be empowered to name an additional judge. In the case of the Supreme Court, that would mean that the membership would grow to a maximum of 15.
This was a sweeping proposal, completely overturning 150 years of precedent. Indeed, the reaction among Roosevelt’s fellow Democrats was instantly negative. Rep. Hatton Sumners of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declared immediately afterward, “This is where I cash in my chips.” That is, he was a firm “nay.”
As a sympathetic political biographer of Roosevelt, James MacGregor Burns wrote later, “The proposal at the outset split the American people neatly in half.” Sharp-penned newspaper editorialists immediately labeled the plan “court-packing,” an ugly image somewhat akin to ballot-box stuffing. In fact, one of those editorialists, William Allen White, wrote that for the first time in his presidency, opposition to Roosevelt was coming “not from the [top] hat section but from the grass roots.”