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Executive and legislative disagreements with the Supreme Court

The U.S. judicial branch, including the Supreme Court, holds the power to deem laws unconstitutional, acting as a check on the legislative and executive branches. Supreme Court appointments are for life, and while the other branches can't overrule them, they can revise laws to align with the Constitution. Presidents have historically tried different tactics to influence the Court, from ignoring verdicts to proposing changes in its structure.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In many videos already, we have talked about our three branches of government in the United States, but what we're going to do in this video is focus a little bit more on the judicial branch. As we've talked about, the judicial branch's main goal is to be the final authority on the United States Constitution. And the main check that they have on the legislative and executive branches is that they can deem things that are happening in the other branches, say a law that gets passed by Congress or an executive order from the president, as being unconstitutional. They can also interpret the laws that have been passed. And so that's where they get their power. Now another interesting thing about the judicial branch that we've talked about is unlike the executive and legislative branch, where these folks are elected on a semi-regular basis, the Supreme Court, these are lifetime appointments. Once someone is nominated by the president and then confirmed by the Senate, they're in the Supreme Court for life. And so the question is is when the Supreme Court does something that say, the president or a member of Congress disagrees with, what can they do? Well, there's a couple of options here. One option, let's say that a clause of a law is deemed unconstitutional. So let's say that there's a law here and this part of it, the US Supreme Court says, "No, that's not consistent with the Constitution," sometimes, the legislature might decide to, hey, let's try to pass another law that clarifies that clause in a way that is in line with the Constitution, or we'll do a whole other law that's worded different, but it has the same purpose. And so the legislative branch can't overrule the judicial branch, but they can try to revise their laws to get more in line with their intent but not get the negative judicial review. The president also has some levers. There's examples in history of the president just outright ignoring a judicial verdict. For example, Thomas Jefferson, during the Embargo Act during his administration, this is during the Napoleonic Wars, and those warring nations were taking advantage of American vessels and seamen, and Thomas Jefferson decided, hey, we don't want to have trade with those countries. There are aspects of those that the Supreme Court, including some Jefferson appointees, decided were unconstitutional but Jefferson just kind of kept executing the way he wanted to. You fast-forward a few decades to the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln decided that, hey, there's some people causing some trouble and we need to detain them, and we know there's a constitutional right of habeas corpus that says that people should be allowed to go to court to decide whether the detention is legal, to decide whether they should be detained, but President Lincoln decided to suspend habeas corpus in certain parts of the country, which the Supreme Court was not happy with. But he decided to just go ahead with it with the argument that it was necessary to preserve the Union. And perhaps the most famous example of a president not being happy with verdicts of the Supreme Court was FDR, as he took office in the midst of the Great Depression. There's a whole series of federal programs that he was trying to pass, and the Supreme Court started to strike down many of these, saying that, hey, this was not the role of the federal government, or this was overreaching by the executive. And so FDR was not happy with this, and so he actually proposed to the legislative branch the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, which essentially said, hey, as soon as a Supreme Court justice is over 70 and a half years old, I should be able to appoint another Supreme Court justice, up to six, and it turns out there were exactly six justices who had already reached that age, so he essentially wanted to pack the Supreme Court with six new justices that would agree with him, that would allow him to do what he wanted. The legislative branch did not pass his Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, but some historians think that it had the impact that he wanted, because it seems, and we don't know for sure, after he even tried to do this, the judicial branch seemed more friendly to FDR. So maybe they said, "Hey, you know, "maybe we don't want to mess with this guy too much "because eventually he might be successful. "Instead of having nine Supreme Court justices, "we'll have 15." People sometimes call this the switch in time that saved nine. But to get an appreciation of how people thought about it, I have some political cartoons from the time, and these are fun to just pause and take a look at it. So this says Trying to Change the Umpiring. So this is the Supreme Court, President Roosevelt here, and he's saying "Listen. I don't like your decisions. "From now on, you're going to have to work with "someone who can see things my way!" and you can see all the different bats that he tried to use and they were all ruled out by the umpire. The NRA, the AAA, these are all different government institutions or programs that FDR was trying to set up in order to fight the Great Depression, as part of his New Deal. And they say, "New Deal Acts declared unconstitutional." I have another political cartoon right over here, and it's from that same period in time. Do We Want A Ventriloquist Act In The Supreme Court? And you see Uncle Sam here and then you have FDR, and it looks like he's got his hand controlling these puppets and it says, "Yes, yes, we all vote yes!" and even FDR did not get his way with his court-packing plan as it's sometimes called, let me write that down, his court-packing plan, as I mentioned, some historians believe that it did help influence the court being a little bit friendlier to him, and a somewhat irony of it is at the end of the day, because FDR served so many terms in office, he was able to make eight out of nine Supreme Court appointments. So in a lot of ways, he did determine the inclinations of the Supreme Court for many decades to come well after his administration.