Floyd H. Roberts

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Floyd H. Roberts (March 29, 1879 - January 29, 1967) was a Virginia lawyer, state court judge, and, briefly, a United States federal judge, whose nomination after a recess appointment was rejected overwhelmingly by the United States Senate.


A graduate of the law school of the University of Virginia, Roberts practiced law in Bristol, Virginia. Prior to his federal appointment, he served as Commonwealth's Attorney and, from September 5, 1914, judge of the Corporation Court of the City of Bristol.

Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Roberts a recess appointment on July 6, 1938 to the new second seat on the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, and in January 1939 sent his nomination for the position to the Senate. As one author has explained, Roosevelt "made the decision to nominate Roberts in order to discipline" Virginia's senators, Harry F. Byrd and Carter Glass "for their consistent opposition to the New Deal and in an effort to assure a friendly Virginia delegation to the 1940 Democratic convention."[1] In the "broader political context" of 1938, Roosevelt tried in that year to oppose the renomination of Democrats who opposed his New Deal, and the timing of the Roberts' nomination corresponded with Roosevelt's efforts across the board to reassert his authority over Democratic legislators.[2] At stake were not only the immediate prospects for Roosevelt's legislative agenda, but also the prospect of a future struggle over the presidential nomination in 1940, as Roosevelt sought to use federal patronage to woo Democratic supporters away from Democratic opponents of the New Deal, in Virginia and elsewhere.

Roberts had the support of Congressman John W. Flannagan, Jr.,[3] but the two Virginia senators, Harry F. Byrd and Carter Glass, both disapproved the selection of Roberts. They preferred another state court judge, A.C. Buchanan, or assistant U.S. Attorney Frank S. Tavenner, Jr., among others seeking the position.[4] Months prior, Roosevelt had engaged in some controversial discussion over who should have "veto power" over federal appointments in Virginia, suggesting that newly elected Governor James H. Price should have that power. This discussion with the White House was made public in March 1938 by Charles J. Harkrader, a member of the Senate of Virginia and publisher of the Bristol Herald-Courier,[1][3][5] the daily newspaper in Judge Roberts' hometown. In response to the objection from Senator Glass that he had not been consulted over Roberts' selection, Roosevelt responded "that he was happy to consult Glass, but reserved the right to consult others, including, if he wished, 'Nancy Astor, the Duchess of Windsor, the WPA, a Virginia moonshiner, Governor Price or Charlie McCarthy.'"[6]

Virginian R. Walton Moore, a former Congressman and president of the Virginia Bar Association, then serving as Counselor in the State Department, "led the administration's effort to secure" the Roberts nomination, but Moore badly underestimated the vigor of the opposition from Glass and Byrd.[1] Senator Glass, in his remarks before the Senate, declared that the nomination of Roberts was "personally obnoxious" to him, the magic words that guaranteed the denial of confirmation.[7] At Roberts' confirmation hearing, the witnesses testifying to his qualifications included Governor Price, former governors Westmoreland Davis and E. Lee Trinkle, and the head of the Virginia Bar Association.[8] The Judiciary Committee recommended against confirming Roberts, by vote of 14-3, "on the grounds that his nomination was 'personally offensive' to the two Virginia Senators."[9] The Senate vote against Roberts was 72-9, with Harry S. Truman among other Democrats siding with Glass[6] and against Roosevelt. Commenting on Roosevelt's position, Senator Glass declared: "Ninety-six Senators have the right of veto over Presidential nominations in specified cases, and on last Monday seventy-two of them exercised their right of veto on the President's nominee for Judge of the Western District of Virginia."[5]

As of February 6, 1939, the day of the Senate vote, "Judge Roberts, who had resigned his state judgeship to take the recess appointment, was now out of a job, and the administration was seen as having suffered a stunning political defeat."[2] The day after the Senate vote, Roosevelt wrote and made public a lengthy letter to Roberts, declaring his thanks for "the honorable, efficient, and in every way praiseworthy service that you have rendered to the people of the United States in general and to the people of the Western District of Virginia in particular" and that "not one single person who has opposed your confirmation has lifted his voice in any shape, manner or form against your personal integrity and ability."[10]

Commenting on who might be nominated after Roberts by Roosevelt, Senator Glass predicted: "I think he'll send up a more objectionable one — if he can find it."[11] Roosevelt solved the problem of filling the judgeship by naming the dean of the University of Virginia Law School, Armistead Mason Dobie, then state court judge Alfred D. Barksdale, to the position. Roberts returned to private practice in Bristol, and litigated cases as counsel before his successors as judge in both state and federal court.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Tulli, Daniel (2006). R. Walton Moore and Virginia Politics: 1933-1941 (PDF). Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  2. ^ a b Goldman, Sheldon (1997). Picking Federal Judges: Lower Court Selection from Roosevelt through Reagan. Yale University Press (accessed via Google Books). ISBN 0-300-08073-5. 
  3. ^ a b Heinemann, Ronald (1983). Depression and New Deal in Virginia: The Enduring Dominion. University of Virginia Press (accessed via Google Books). ISBN 0-8139-0946-5. 
  4. ^ Neither were purely patronage picks. Buchanan became a member of the Virginia Supreme Court; Tavenner became U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, then counsel to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, then counsel for the House Un-American Activities Committee, associated with the Hollywood blacklist.
  5. ^ a b Smith, Rixey (1939). Carter Glass: A Biography. Ayer Publishing (accessed via Google Books). ISBN 0-8369-5446-7. 
  6. ^ a b "Time Magazine, Monday, Aug. 13, 1951". Time. August 13, 1951. Retrieved October 11, 2007. 
  7. ^ "Evolution of the Senate’s Role in the Nomination and Confirmation Process: A Brief History" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. Retrieved October 11, 2007. 
  8. ^ "WASHINGTON MERRY-GO -ROUND -- 2/1/39" (PDF). WRLC. Retrieved October 11, 2007. 
  9. ^ "Votes Other Than Favorably on Judicial Nominations, 1939-2003". Congressional Research Service. Retrieved October 11, 2007.  According to this report, two of the 19 nominations that failed in the Senate between 1939 and 2003 were for seats on the Western District of Virginia, Roberts and one other in 1976.
  10. ^ "Franklin Roosevelt, Letter on the Role of the Senate in Confirming Presidential Appointments, Feb. 7, 1939". The American Presidency Project, UCSB. Retrieved January 13, 2008. 
  11. ^ "Time Magazine, Monday, Feb. 13, 1939". Time. February 13, 1939. Retrieved October 11, 2007. 

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