The Highest Court

In 2006, George W. Bush gives an Oval Office Address.  He tells the nation that he will not enforce the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan.  He says his duty to protect America from terrorists makes its impossible to accept such a dangerous decision.  Furthermore, he says the opinion is inconsistent with the Biblical principle of “an eye for an eye.”  Finally, he asks all citizens to join in his resistance to the Court.

I don’t need to tell you what the reaction to that would have been.  Impeachment hearings would have started the next day (and might not have taken long).  Why do I bring this up? Because the scenario that I’ve just described is what almost happened in 1935 when Franklin Roosevelt was prepared to announce his opposition to the Gold Clause Cases.  I’m writing an article about this episode, which is almost done, but I thought I’d say something about this part of the story now.

Before 1933, a standard provision in public and private contracts held that creditors were to be paid back in dollars “payable in principal and interest in United States gold coin of the present standard of value,” which meant the standard in force when the contract was made.  The Great Depression caused serious deflation, which meant that one gold dollar in 1929 was worth about $1.69 in 1933.  To save debtors from the crushing burden of paying back much more than they borrowed, Congress authorized the President to reduce the gold weight of the dollar and said that gold clauses in contracts were null and void.  The latter act was attacked in the Supreme Court, and in early 1935 nobody was sure what the Justices would do.  (They ended up upholding Congress’s abrogation by a 5-4 vote.)

The President decided that he would not accept the “wrong” decision and drafted a Fireside Chat explaining why.  Most of the address centered on the disastrous consequences of forcing debtors to pay in deflated dollars, but at the end there was this amazing passage:

“Every individual or corporation, public or private, should pay back substantially what they borrowed.  That would seem to be a decision in accordance with the Golden Rule, with the precepts of the Scriptures, and the dictates of common sense.  In order to attain this reasonable end, I shall immediately take such steps as may be necessary, by proclamation and by message to the Congress of the United States. In the meantime, I ask every individual, every trustee, every corporation and every bank to proceed on the usual course of their honorable and legitimate business.  They can rest assured that we shall carry on the business of the country tomorrow just as we did last week or last month, on the same financial basis, on the same currency basis, and in the same relationship of debtor and creditor as before.”

The Golden Rule?  The Scriptures?  Go about your business and ignore what the Supreme Court just held?  As the Crocodile Hunter used to say, “Crikey!”

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3 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think what this shows is the changed role the court now plays in our society, probably as a result of Brown and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s become politically unthinkable to defy the court in this manner that it wasn’t in 1935.

  2. Ken Rhodes says:

    “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.”

    Goes back a long way, doesn’t it?

  3. I think it’s because the Court has become so deferential that occasions to defy the Court are much more limited than FDR, who was trying t vastly expand the scope of government before the will of the Court had been broken, faced. Generally limited to cases at the very margin, where public opinion wouldn’t back up the elected branches because they’re trying to do something quite controversial in the first place.