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FDR’s Gambit: The Court Packing Fight and the Rise of Legal Liberalism

A Conversation with Professor Laura Kalman and Professor Brad Snyder

Society Event: FDR's Gambit—The Court Packing Fight and the Rise of Legal Liberalism
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In FDR’s Gambit, the eminent legal historian Laura Kalman challenges the conventional wisdom by telling the story as it unfolded, without the distortions of hindsight. Indeed, while scholars have portrayed the Court Bill as the ill-fated brainchild of a hubristic President made overbold by victory, Kalman argues to the contrary that acumen, not arrogance, accounted for Roosevelt’s actions. Far from erring tragically from the beginning, FDR came very close to getting additional justices, and the Court itself changed course. As Kalman shows, the episode suggests that proposing a change in the Court might give the justices reason to consider whether their present course is endangering the institution and its vital role in a liberal democracy.

Based on extensive archival research, FDR’s Gambit offers a novel perspective on the long-term effects of court packing’s failure, as a legacy that remains with us today. Whether or not it is the right remedy for today’s troubles, Kalman argues that court packing does not deserve to be recalled as one fated for failure in 1937.

Laura Kalman is Distinguished Research Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a member of the California Bar, and Past President of the American Society for Legal History. She is the author ofThe Long Reach of the Sixties: LBJ, Nixon, and the Making of the Contemporary Supreme Court; Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980; Yale Law School and the Sixties: Revolt and Reverberations; The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism; Abe Fortas: A Biography; and Legal Realism at Yale, 1927-1960.

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