In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a reorganization of the judiciary that included his controversial "court-packing" plan. This plan would allow the president to appoint a new Supreme Court justice whenever an incumbent judge reached seventy and failed to retire; a maximum of six judges could be named in this manner. Roosevelt's proposal to reorganize the federal courts began a year of crisis. Even though he was at the peak of his power after the election of 1936, much of his opposition was still entrenched in the judiciary, as evidenced in the decisions invalidating such New Deal measures as the National Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Guffey Coal Act of 1935.
In Texas the court-packing proposal served to crystallize sentiment that was already going against the New Deal. For much of the Texas delegation in Washington, largely composed of rural conservatives, the president's request symbolized a desire for unlimited power. The three Texans who led the fight against the court plan were Vice President John Nance Garner, Representative Hatton W. Sumners, and Senator Thomas T. Connally.
On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt, without any advance warning, presented the proposed bill to a group of congressional leaders, including Garner and Sumners. From the start, Garner loathed the plan and thought that it would be a threat to party harmony. He began covertly to rally the opposition. Sumners, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, determined immediately that he would oppose the plan. He decided that the reorganization bill would not come up in his committee, because he knew that if it was reported out, it would pass in the House. He also wanted time to promote opposition among his colleagues and the people. Because of Sumners's opposition as well as his own misgivings about the bill, majority leader Samuel T. (Sam) Rayburn helped convince the president that it would be unwise to bring the bill up in the House. Roosevelt therefore had it introduced in the Senate. Meanwhile, Sumners began to travel about the country making speeches about constitutional government. The bill never left his committee.
While Sumners was engaged in the House, Connally was active in the Senate, where he was a member of the Judiciary Committee. Up to this point he had supported the president, but he thought the court plan was unconstitutional. With the measure sidetracked from consideration in the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee occupied center stage, where Connally proved a formidable opponent. First, he addressed the Texas legislature and made it clear that he opposed the plan. Second, he organized a series of prominent Texas lawyers to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their condemnation of the bill attracted nationwide attention.
In the midst of this struggle, Garner left for home. Immediately, rumors circulated that he had walked out on Roosevelt. In spite of pleas from the president, Garner did not return to Washington. But when Senator Joseph T. Robinson died, Roosevelt chose Garner to represent him at the funeral. On the train back to Washington, Garner conferred with Senate leaders and concluded that the president's plan was finished. Upon his return to Washington, Garner saw the president and told him the bill was dead. Eventually, Garner was given credit for smoothing over the crisis, but he had also rendered himself persona non grata with the administration.
Not all Texans joined Garner, Sumners, and Connally in opposing the court plan. Most notable in support of the bill were Maury Maverick, who introduced it in the House, and Morris Sheppard. But with Garner, Sumners, and Connally providing legislative skill on the other side, the bill was defeated.