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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

This morning, the latest chapter in a partisan fight that goes back decades. It's the battle over who should serve as judges on the nation's federal courts, or, in some cases, how many judges should serve. President Franklin Roosevelt caused an uproar in the 1930s with his plan to pack the Supreme Court with more judges.

Now, Republican Senator Charles Grassley has proposed the reverse: cutting three seats from an important appeals court. Grassley wants to cut these seats, just as President Obama was getting ready to fill them.

Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In March 1937, as he eased into his second term, FDR used one of his famous fire-side chats to go after critics blasting his plan to add seats to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRESIDE CHAT)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Those opposing this plan have sought to arouse prejudice and fear, by crying that I am seeking to pack the Supreme Court.

JOHNSON: Congress supported the president's New Deal efforts, but the Supreme Court kept throwing them out. So his solution was to try to add more judges to the high court.

Historian Jeff Shesol, who wrote a book on FDR's court-packing plan, talked about the president's motives with WHYY's FRESH AIR three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

JEFF SHESOL: He had big majorities in both houses of Congress, but ultimately, he had to run the gauntlet of the Supreme Court, that these big changes in government and in the economy would have to be ratified by the third branch of government. And that's very much true today.

JOHNSON: Today, that fight is playing out in the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., considered the second-most important court in the country. That appeals court, known as the D.C. Circuit, often represents the last word on financial regulations, labor rights and environmental protections. The court's now evenly balanced, four-to-four, with appointees from Republican and Democratic presidents.

Enter Iowa Republican Charles Grassley with a bill he calls the Court Efficiency Act.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY REPUBLICAN, IOWA: The legislation's very straightforward. It would add a seat to the 2nd and the 11th Circuit. At the same time, it would reduce the number of authorized judgeships for the D.C. Circuit from 11 to eight.

JOHNSON: Senator Grassley says the D.C. Circuit doesn't have enough work to do, so he wants to cut one seat and send two others to busier courts in New York and Georgia.

Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee last week accused President Obama of packing the court.

SENATOR MIKE LEE: I certainly hope that neither the White House nor my Democratic colleagues will instead to decide to play politics, and seek - without any legitimate justification - to pack the D.C. Circuit with unneeded judges simply in order to advance a partisan agenda.

RUSSELL WHEELER: Appointing judges to existing vacancies is not court-packing. It's simply the way the system works.

JOHNSON: Russell Wheeler studies judge vacancies at the Brookings Institution. Wheeler says something else is going on.

WHEELER: It's hard for me to believe that behind this so-called court efficiency proposal is not an effort to keep the court's active judgeships balanced with four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees.

JOHNSON: The D.C. appeals court could be busier, Wheeler says, but the measurements that Republicans are using don't consider how complicated some of its cases are. And the GOP proposal would take effect right away, unlike previous bills that waited for a new president to take office.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: You know, this has nothing to do with case load. It has everything to do with who is president.

JOHNSON: Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy leads the Senate Judiciary Committee.

LEAHY: Point out they had no concerns with supporting President Bush's four Senate-confirmed nominees to the D.C. Circuit.

JOHNSON: White House sources say President Obama could nominate three candidates for the open seats on the D.C. court as early as Thursday. No one knows what, if anything, will happen with those nominees in a divided Senate. Same goes for Grassley's court un-packing proposal, which represents a line in the sand for Republicans and judges this year.

As for FDR, his court-packing plan ultimately fell apart. But by staying in office for so long, he named eight of the nine Supreme Court justices and turned the Court his way through sheer longevity. President Obama's second term window is closing.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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