August 09, 2005

Under the constitution and not over it

Can you guess who delivered this speech, and when?

"The [Supreme] Court has been acting not as a judicial body, but as a policy-making body. ... The Court in addition to the proper use of its judicial functions, has improperly set itself up as a third house of the Congress, a super-legislature, as one of the justices has called it, reading into the Constitution words and implications which are not there, and which were never intended to be there.

We have, therefore, reached the point as a nation where we must take action to save the Constitution from the Court and the Court from itself. ... We want a Supreme Court which will do justice under the Constitution and not over it.

I want - as all Americans want - an independent judiciary as proposed by the framers of the Constitution. That means a Supreme Court that will enforce the constitution as written, that will refuse to amend the constitution by the arbitrary exercise of judicial power. ... I will appoint Justices who will act as Justices and not as legislators

During the last half century the balance of power between the three great branches of the Federal Government, has been tipped out of balance by the Courts, in direct contradiction of the high purposes of the framers of the Constitution. It is my purpose to restore that balance. "

Was this Ronald Reagan explaining why he nominated Robert Bork? Was it George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign, describing his philosophy on judicial appointments? Or was it Rick Santorum, explaining why he's decided to run for president in 2008?

No, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his ninth Fireside Chat, "On the Reorganization of the Judiciary", delivered on March 9, 1937.

A (rather errorful) transcript is here; a streaming Real Audio version is here, and a downloadable mp3 here.

My corrected transcript is here. I 've fixed a variety of omission, insertions and substitutions; divided the speech into breath-group-sized phrases; and noted the pronunciation of the indefinite article "a", with reduced forms ("uh", IPA [ə]) in blue and unreduced forms ("ay", IPA [ej]) in red.

This being Language Log, the pronunciation was what motivated me to listen to this speech. It's another data point in the on-going saga of article unreduction. In this 34-minute speech, FDR almost exactly splits the difference -- 41 of his a's are reduced and 40 unreduced.

If you look over the transcript and listen to the audio, I think you'll find that it's not trivial to predict where unreduction will strike. It's clearly not a marker of disfluency, but it doesn't always seen to be a phonetic hi-liter either. For example, FDR makes a contrast in which the first a is unreduced while the second one is reduced:

The Court has been acting not as a judicial body, but as a policy-making body. (audio link)

In this case, there's no pause after the unreduced a, or anywhere else in the phrase "a judicial body", but he does pause in "a policy-making ___ body".

A little later he gives two phrases in apposition where the first has a reduced a and the second an unreduced one:

The Court in addition to the proper use of its judicial functions
has improperly set itself up as a third house of the Congress
a super-legislature,
as one of the justices has called it (audio link)

In this case, he pauses in the middle of the phrase with the unreduced a: "a super ___ legislature".

And a bit later, there's a list where the first two instances of a in "a Chief Justice" are reduced while the third one is unreduced:

President Taft appointed five members
and named a Chief Justice;
President Wilson, three;
President Harding, four,
including a Chief Justice;
President Coolidge, one;
President Hoover, three,
including a Chief Justice. (audio link)

Go figure. Anyhow, Chris Waigl and I are still gathering data on this phenomenon -- you may have noted some interesting pronunciations of the in these FDR audio clips as well -- and you'll hear more from us on this over time. I'll admit, though, that I've posted about this speech because I thought the content was an interesting counterpoint to the current debate over judicial philosophy. I learned in high school about Roosevelt's attempt to add six justices to the Supreme Court, in order to overcome judicial resistance to his legislative agenda. I didn't know that he used this "courts should not legislate" rhetoric, though of course it makes perfect sense.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 9, 2005 02:08 AM