As I was doing research for a post about the latest Court-packing plan (suggestion?) and I stumbled across a rather interesting set of events. Here are the facts that I know:
In March of 1937, the Democratic President Andrew Jackson was wrapping up his wildly divisive, eight-year Presidency. His hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren, had been elected 4 months earlier and was gearing up to begin his own term in office. On March 3, 1837 Congress passed the ‘Act of March 3, 1837′ that (1)added two circuit courts in the Southwest (2)abolished certain circuit court responsibilities that overlapped with district courts and (3)added two Supreme Court Justices. Since the days of President Madison, Congress had refused to create new circuit courts because they were reluctant to give the President the privilege of appointing more Justices. Because of the country’s population growth and geographical expansion, Circuit Courts were forced to assume certain district court responsibilities that they would ordinarily not perform.
Congress added two justices to the court not because they wanted to give Andrew Jackson the power to appoint two justices, but because the growing nation needed circuit courts and it was a political climate just happened to be conducive to that change. At the time, The Democrats held a majority in the House (143/242 or 59%) and plurality in the Senate (26/52 or 50% but the Nullifier Party held two of the remaining seats, giving the Dems a plurality. The two Nullifier Senators, William C. Preston and John C. Calhoun would likely have sided against allowing Jackson to appoint more members.) The Democrats maintained a rather strong majority in both bodies of Congress (67% in the Senate and 53% in the House against a split coalition), so they certainly weren’t trying to add these Justices in before they lost power.
Jackson appointed two individuals later that day, John Catron of Tennessee and William Smith of Alabama. Catron would eventually be confirmed and went on to fulfill a 28-year Supreme Court tenure. William Smith however, rejected his appointment. Smith had been a ardent supporter of the Union during the Nullification Crisis and had been a “warm supporter of Jackson’s policy of maintenance of Federal supremacy.” He “issued a public statement of refreshing frankness.” I quote the following from my favorite Supreme Court book, “The Supreme Court in US History” by Charles Warren (I purchased a first edition of the whole 3-volume set from 1922 from a lovely bookstore in California for only $50!):
“It has become a matter of considerable inquiry, as well as of some speculation, why I would decline a very dignified office of light labors, and a permanent salary of $5000 a year,” he wrote, and he explained that it was not due to bodily infirmity or “to any doubt of my legal learning” nor “to cold indifference to the honor”, but rather to his desire to retain his freedom to take part in political discussion in support of Jackson’s policies. For, he continued, “although I have always believed a Judge was not bound by any moral principle to abstain from the political discussions that so much agitate our country, I have, nevertheless, believed him under the strongest prudential motives to do so; as he might, with perfect innocence, in discussion a political subject elsewhere,, express an opinion which might afterwards cross his judicial path whilst on the Bench, place him in a delicate situation, and the public estimation cast a blot upon the sacred ermine.”
In his place, Van Buren appointed John McKinley of Alabama. All was good in the (Supreme Court’s) Universe.
Updated 7/29/2007 @ 8:40am- AJ brings up the biggest remaining question- Why would congress rush to pass the Act on the last day of Jackson’s term when they know that Van Buren could and probably would select very similar, if not the same, individuals for the Court? Was there another part of the Act that had to be passed while Jackson was in office?