This Day in Legal History: FDR Tries to Pack the Court
On this day in legal history, February 5, 1937, marks a significant moment when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled his controversial "court-packing" plan. This bold proposal aimed to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts by allowing the addition of new judges whenever an existing judge aged seventy or older chose not to retire. Roosevelt's initiative was born out of his frustration with the Supreme Court's opposition to several of his New Deal economic reforms, which he believed were essential for pulling America out of the depths of the Great Depression. Critics were quick to denounce Roosevelt's plan, labeling it an attempt towards autocracy and a blatant maneuver to manipulate the judiciary in favor of his policies.
The public debate reached a fever pitch following Roosevelt's "fireside chat" on March 9, 1937, where he directly addressed the nation, outlining his reasons for the proposal and seeking public support. Despite the intense controversy and opposition from various quarters, including members of his own Democratic Party, the plan ultimately failed to gain the necessary legislative approval. However, the ensuing years saw Roosevelt achieve his objective in a roundabout way; over his next four years in office, he appointed seven new justices to the Supreme Court as vacancies arose. This reshaping of the Court significantly altered its stance on New Deal legislation, leading to a period where the Court upheld many of Roosevelt's key economic reforms. The "court-packing" episode remains a pivotal moment in U.S. legal history, highlighting the tensions between the executive and judicial branches of government and the challenges of balancing power within the federal system.
In a notable legal battle involving copyright law and the art of tattooing, celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D was cleared of infringing on a photograph of Miles Davis by Jeffrey Sedlik, as determined by a jury in the US District Court for the Central District of California. The jury concluded that Von D's tattoo, sketch, and social media posts were not substantially similar to Sedlik's photograph, sidestepping allegations of copyright infringement. However, the jury's verdict included an unexpected twist: it also addressed fair use for certain social media posts, despite instructions to cease deliberations if works were found not substantially similar, suggesting these posts were a form of free expression protected under copyright law.
This verdict has stirred the legal community, especially in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that cast a shadow over the transformative use of copyrighted material, raising questions about the future of copyright protection. Sedlik's potential appeal faces hurdles due to the specific nature of copyright verdicts and the traditional deference given to jury decisions, although the fair use findings, seen as extraneous by some, could complicate matters if the substantial similarity decision is overturned.
Legal experts debate the impact of the jury's decision, particularly its fair use findings, on potential appeals and the overall interpretation of copyright law. The jury's approach, deemed confusing by some, highlights the complexities of legal forms and the interpretation of jury instructions. The outcome of this case is closely watched by copyright holders and artists alike, reflecting broader concerns over copyright protection and artistic freedom. Despite the controversy, Von D's legal team remains confident in the verdict's durability against appeals, while Sedlik's team prepares for further legal action, emphasizing the importance of copyright protection for artists.
In an op-ed written for Bloomberg Tax, IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel outlines the agency's priorities for the current tax season, emphasizing the historic opportunity provided by the Inflation Reduction Act to enhance the IRS's services, compliance efforts, and fraud protection measures. Werfel highlights the agency's commitment to improving taxpayer service by expanding the Taxpayer Assistance Centers and enhancing digital functionalities, allowing taxpayers to interact with the IRS more seamlessly. With the goal of making tax filing easier and more secure, the IRS aims to allow for all documents to be filed and notices responded to online, alongside simplifying IRS communications to reduce taxpayer confusion.
A significant focus is also placed on compliance, with Werfel detailing the IRS's steps to increase scrutiny on high-income taxpayers and large entities, aiming to reverse low audit rates and ensure that those with significant incomes or tax debts fulfill their obligations. Through these efforts, the IRS has already recovered $520 million from high-wealth individuals, signaling a more aggressive stance against tax evasion.
The Direct File pilot program is another innovation mentioned, offering free electronic filing directly with the IRS in 12 states, representing a move towards assessing and fulfilling taxpayer needs digitally. Werfel also addresses the critical issue of protecting taxpayers from scams, underscoring the importance of safeguarding the integrity of the tax system.
The op-ed conveys a vision for an IRS that is more accessible and responsive, leveraging new funding to provide better service to middle and low-income taxpayers while applying more scrutiny to those at the higher end of the income spectrum. Werfel's piece reflects a strategic plan for utilizing the Inflation Reduction Act's resources to achieve long-term improvements, reinforcing the IRS's role in maintaining a fair tax system for all Americans.
Donald Trump is taking his claim of immunity to the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse a Colorado court decision that disqualified him from the ballot due to his involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack. Trump argues that the 14th Amendment's provision barring individuals who engaged in insurrection from holding office does not apply to him as a former president. This appeal is part of a broader pattern where Trump has repeatedly claimed he is beyond legal accountability, whether in criminal or civil cases. His claims extend to controversial assertions of presidential immunity, including the idea that a president could order an assassination without facing prosecution unless impeached and convicted.
The Supreme Court's review will test novel legal questions regarding presidential immunity and the applicability of the 14th Amendment to Trump. Historical precedents suggest that while presidents may have some immunity for acts performed in their official capacity, it is not absolute, especially regarding personal conduct. Trump's legal battles also involve claims of immunity in other cases, including federal charges related to the 2020 election, election interference in Georgia, and defamation claims.
Legal experts and professors express skepticism about Trump's broad claims of immunity, pointing out that while his arguments are unprecedented, they may not succeed in court. The Supreme Court's decision could have profound implications for the understanding of presidential immunity and accountability, with potential consequences for how the Constitution and federal laws are interpreted and enforced in relation to the presidency.
By way of very brief background, the concept of presidential immunity in the United States has been a subject of legal debates and court rulings, particularly regarding the extent to which a sitting president is immune from civil and criminal claims. The landmark Supreme Court case Nixon v. Fitzgerald established that a president enjoys absolute immunity from civil liability for official acts undertaken while in office, emphasizing the necessity of protecting the executive's decision-making process. However, in Clinton v. Jones in 1997, the Court clarified that presidential immunity does not extend to actions taken before office or unrelated to official duties, allowing civil lawsuits for actions outside the scope of presidential duties to proceed against a sitting president.
Criminal immunity, while not directly addressed by the Supreme Court, is guided by opinions from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, which suggest that indicting a sitting president would unduly interfere with the executive branch's ability to perform its constitutionally assigned functions. Yet, these are not binding legal precedents, and the issue remains unresolved in the judiciary.
The recent legal challenges faced by former President Donald Trump, including investigations in New York and other jurisdictions, test the boundaries of these precedents, especially once a president leaves office. The ongoing debates and potential legal battles may prompt further clarification from the courts on the limits of presidential immunity, particularly regarding whether a president can face criminal charges while in office or immediately after their term ends.