Noah Feldman scrutinizes FDR's Supreme Court in Scorpions.

Noah Feldman scrutinizes FDR's Supreme Court in Scorpions.

Noah Feldman scrutinizes FDR's Supreme Court in Scorpions.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 17 2010 2:25 PM

Egos on the Bench

The unexpected legacy of FDR's court packing.

"Scorpions" by Noah Feldman.

Imagine an America plunged into a recession, with a president attempting to implement progressive reforms while an intransigent Supreme Court defiantly protects the interests of big business. Now imagine that same president is given the opportunity to fill not just one or two but nine Supreme Court seats over his tenure, and to fill those seats with some of the leading progressive lawyers and thinkers of the time. Quite a thought experiment, no? Imagine a present-day Supreme Court comprised of people like Pam Karlan, Harold Koh, Amy Klobuchar (insert your own "liberal Scalia" here).

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Breathe deep, my Federalist Society friends. It's still just a thought experiment.

But this was precisely the scenario faced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 when he first tried to pack the Supreme Court with liberal jurists. He sought to replace the "nine old men" who persistently blocked progressive legislation with the great legal liberal minds of his time. And thus this is the thought experiment to which one can't help but return throughout Noah Feldman's terrific new book Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices. What does it mean when a president boldly attempts to reshape American constitutional thought? Did FDR's four "great" Supreme Court appointees, who all served together from 1941 through 1954—Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, Hugo Black, and William O. Douglas—redefine liberal constitutional thought? Having been selected to constitute some kind of liberal dream team—an FDR-stamped and certified Miracle on Ice—did they vanquish conservative jurisprudential thought for all time?


Feldman's answer is complicated. (Disclosure: I have met Feldman twice and know him slightly.) On the one hand he traces the ways in which Frankfurter, Jackson, Black, and Douglas so fundamentally reshaped 20th-century constitutional thought that their influences still dominate modern doctrine today. Black was the father of originalism. Frankfurter devoted his whole career to promoting the goal of judicial restraint. Jackson was a lifelong pragmatist, and Douglas left his fingerprints all over what we have come to think of as modern privacy and liberty doctrine. As Damon Root at Reason Online recently noted, "It's no exaggeration to say we're living in a world shaped by their views." And yet the main thrust of Feldman's book is that these four "great" men were so consistently egotistical and inflexible, so fractious and combative, that they worked at cross purposes for most of their lives.

All of Feldman's "scorpions" (Alexander Bickel, who clerked for Frankfurter, once described the Supreme Court as "nine scorpions in a bottle") were deeply ambitious. The first half of the book shows how each justice overcame modest beginnings—Jackson never even graduated law school and Douglas slung hash and worked as a janitor—to become an intimate or adviser of FDR. Their naked opportunism and manipulation en route is quite stunning, especially compared with the lofty conduct of our modern justices, who like to pretend they never even thought about a court seat until it was offered them. Hugo Black went so far as to join the KKK in Alabama to help him achieve his Senate seat, then ditched the group immediately thereafter. Douglas kept pretending he had better job offers at prestigious Ivy League schools. These men weren't just FDR's advisers and occasional employees; they were his poker buddies, drinking companions, and strategists, too.

Yet the patrician Roosevelt handpicked these great lawyers in no small part because they had all staked their early legal careers on pursuing America's most powerful special interests. Jackson made his name pursuing former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (the third-richest man in America) for tax fraud, while Douglas went after Wall Street as chairman of the SEC. Frankfurter defended a pair of Italian anarchists. Black was a populist senator. All of them were staunch defenders of the New Deal. It should have been a match made in heaven. In 1941, when Jackson was sworn in, FDR triumphantly declared, "It may not be proper to announce it, but today the Supreme Court is full."

Perhaps that is why the most fascinating part of the book is the drama that unfolds once all four are seated at the high court. That's when everything starts to go all Real Housewives. There was a very brief honeymoon period in which all four scorpions signed off on a Frankfurter opinion in which the court sided against Jehovah's Witnesses who were expelled from school for refusing to salute the flag. But the blowback was terrible, including a wave of anti-Jehovah's Witness violence in 1940. Douglas and Black soon realized they'd been in error. And not long after that the wheels came off. Between boundless egos and overwhelming personal ambition, members of FDR's liberal dream team ended up largely loathing one another. To add constitutional insult to injury, two of the guiding constitutional philosophies these New Deal liberals ultimately produced—Frankfurter's devotion to judicial restraint and Black's fealty to "original intent"—are now the lodestars of the court's conservative wing.