That was how the great American columnist Walter Lippmann in his column, titled “The Seizure of the Court,” described President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt in 1937 to control the Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s victory would have meant that “one man shall become the master of all three branches of the government and the fundamental law as well,” he wrote. Fast-forward 74 years later, soberly consider the recent events in our country, and a bloodless, though slow-motion coup d’état is also occurring by which President Aquino will dominate all three branches of government and the Constitution as well:
On President Aquino’s orders, the daughter of a respected former president, a former senator, the Philippines’ 12th vice president, the 14th president of the country, and a sitting member of the House of Representatives is arrested on the sole, very dubious claim of a warlord’s underling implicated in the Maguindanao massacre of 57 people.
On Aquino’s orders, the justice secretary arrogantly flouts a Supreme Court order and verbally abuses the highest court of the land.
The President declares that he does not like how the Court interpreted the Constitution in several of its decisions, including that on his clan’s Hacienda Luisita. Therefore Chief Justice Renato Corona must be replaced with somebody who will interpret the Constitution the way he wants it.
On the President’s orders, the House of Representatives, without any hearings and debates, in three hours’ time impeaches the Chief Justice.
The bloodless coup will be completed if the Senate does the President’s bidding to take out the Chief Justice.
However, the parallels between Roosevelt’s and Aquino’s attempts to control the Supreme Courts of their countries are so striking that it is not Corona but Aquino who should be worrying.
Roosevelt’s attack on the Court turned out to be his monumental blunder, which torpedoed his popularity and severely weakened him politically. If not for World War II, Roosevelt would have been politically finished as a result of his humiliating defeat in trying to control the Court.
Roosevelt was livid that the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional several of his programs. He ordered Democratic Party leaders in the Senate to push for a law—later pejoratively called Roosevelt’s “court-packing plan”—that would authorize him to appoint six new justices to the Supreme Court, increasing its number from 9 to 15, and allowing him to control it.
Roosevelt thought that with his immense popularity (his 1936 reelection was a landslide victory) he could call on “people power” to get his proposal enacted into law. He went on an unprecedented media blitz savaging the Court, even arrogantly claiming: “We have … reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the Constitution from the Court and the Court from itself.”
Roosevelt would regret making those kinds of statements.
The US press, which had backed his reelection, and the majority of Americans, were outraged by his plan to control the Court. Members of his own Democratic Party revolted, with one even raising the “dictator” issue: “Hitler and Stalin talk of their democracies. Every despot has usurped the power of the legislative and judicial branches of the government in the name of the necessity for haste to promote the general welfare of the masses—and then proceeded to reduce them to servitude.”
University students at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and elsewhere ridiculed him by organizing “King Franklin Clubs” that became a craze on American campuses. (King Benigno I would have a nice tyrannical ring.)
After five months of acrimonious public debate, the US Senate rejected his court-packing plan by an overwhelming 70-20 vote.
It was Roosevelt’s most humiliating political defeat. “As a result … FDR was no longer invincible either with Congress or the public,” wrote historian Burt Solomon (“FDR v. The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy,” 2009). Another historian wrote: “The protracted legislative battle over the Court-packing bill blunted the momentum for additional reforms… squandered the political advantage Roosevelt had gained in the 1936 elections, and gave fresh ammunition to those who accused him of dictatorship. ”
After Roosevelt’s defeat, no president ever dared meddle with the Supreme Court. Hence, the number of justices has remained at nine (set in 1837), resulting in the Court’s common split 5-4 decisions, in contrast to the Philippine Court’s many 9-6 decisions. (The ruling against the Truth Commission was 10-5, yet Mr. Aquino considers this as one of Corona’s impeachable acts.)
If the US Senate buckled under Roosevelt’s pressure, according to one historian, “it would have meant a timid Court, a rubber stamp, one that was so responsive to public opinion that it would not have had the independence to make a major unpopular … decision.”
The Senate’s defense of the Court was a pivotal event that strengthened US democracy with its system of three co-equal branches. Historian Solomon concluded: “It left the … republic with a surer-footed but less tyrannical president, a more skeptical Congress, and a vigorous and independent judiciary that took the people’s needs into account. The modern era of government, and of justice, had begun.”
To borrow Lippmann’s words for the issue facing us today, if our senators back Mr. Aquino’s attack on our Supreme Court, “they would have lost their instinct for liberty and their understanding of constitutional government.”
I am sure that our senators understand profoundly, as their counterparts in the US did 74 years ago, what a republican system really means, beyond the frenzied shrieks of the mob.