Helvering v. Davis

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Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870—1938)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882—1945) American Democratic statesman, 32nd President of the US 1933–45

Owen J. Roberts (1930—1945)

court-packing Plan


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301 U.S. 619 (1937), argued 5 May 1937, decided 24 May 1937 by vote of 7 to 2; Cardozo for the Court, Butler and McReynolds in dissent. In this case the Court sustained the old-age benefits provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935. Writing for the majority, Justice Benjamin Cardozo adopted an expansive view of the federal taxing and spending power. He judged the old-age benefits provisions of the Social Security Act constitutional pursuant to Article I, section 8 of the Constitution.

In response to the claim that the Tenth Amendment prohibited Congress's use of the taxing and spending power to raise revenue for a purpose traditionally reserved to the states, Cardozo pointed out that the Social Security Act was born in response to a “nation-wide calamity” that was unsolvable without a concerted federal effort (p. 641). If some states funded programs and some did not, Cardozo speculated, indigents would flock to the funding states just as industry would flee those states to avoid the requisite new payroll taxes.

Only a few days before the Court handed down its decision in Helvering, Justice Willis Van Devanter announced his retirement. After waiting impatiently for more than four years, President Franklin Roosevelt finally had a Supreme Court nomination. This welcome prospect, coupled with the new voting stance of Justice Owen Roberts, meant that the president's much criticized court-packing plan was no longer necessary. As South Carolina Senator James F. Byrnes queried, “Why run for a train after you’ve caught it?”

John W. Johnson

Subjects: Law.

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