Power  /  Book Review

How FDR’s Influence Over the Supreme Court Transformed History

In “The Court at War,” Cliff Sloan examines the close relationship between FDR and the high court during World War II.

Through this historic lens, FDR’s friendships with the justices, though problematic, appear more benign than Sloan’s portrayal. What Sloan adeptly explores, however, is the key question of whether the president swayed the justices to rule in his favor. In his search for an answer, he excavates an exchange between Justices Stanley Reed and Frankfurter that took place after FDR’s death. “I wanted to help him,” Reed said of Roosevelt, according to a memo memorializing the conversation, “and not hinder him in matters that came before the Court.” With FDR’s passing, Reed continued, “I … expect to be much more free in the future.” It’s certainly telling, but few — if any — concrete examples showcase FDR’s suasion over the justices in specific cases.

Sloan underscores two critical issues that resonate today: the court’s commitment to constitutional rights during a crisis and the dangers that arise when justices are beholden to a president or a political party. In that light, “The Court at War” is more convincing when attributing the court’s uneven legacy to wartime hysteria. The all-encompassing nature of a war marked by patriotic fervor, fear of another attack on American soil following Pearl Harbor, and the existential threat posed by Germany and Japan forged the backdrop for the justices’ willingness to sanction the government’s unconstitutional excesses, culminating in Korematsu. Sadly, the court wasn’t alone. Congress, the public and the press also supported Japanese American internment. Even Warren, the former California governor who went on to champion civil rights as chief justice, at first backed the policy before recognizing its iniquities. By succumbing to this toxic cocktail of fear-driven mania and bigotry, the court failed to live up to its role as a bulwark against the passions overtaking the public and their elected representatives.

In a world beset by rising domestic and global threats, it’s fair to ask whether today’s court would falter as it did in Korematsu if asked to safeguard civil liberties during times of peril. In casting a bright light on this issue, Sloan’s thoughtful book will better prepare the nation for that moment.