1935: U.S. Government Loses 'Sick Chicken' Case to Jewish Slaughterers

The Schechter brothers won the battle with FDR but lost the war, remaining financially ruined – yet held no grudges.

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Chickens in a coop.
How a squabble over poultry practices brought down FDR's policy.Credit: Limor Edery

On May 27, 1935, the Supreme Court would kill the U.S. government's case against four Jewish chicken slaughterers, a ruling that ultimately led the peeved president to try to change the structure of the high court.

The unanimous ruling in ALA Schechter v United States had the effect of overturning the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), one of the linchpin programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It also contributed to FDR's attempt two years later to increase the number of judges on the high court, so that he could pack it with jurists who would be inclined to uphold his policies.

The case had its origins in the summer of 1934, when inspectors, in repeated visits to the ALA Schechter kosher poultry slaughterhouse, in Brooklyn, New York, charged the company with some 60 violations of federal health and business codes. Among them were accusations of price-fixing, of selling unhealthy chickens, and of overworking their employees.

A rotten chicken business

The feds were convinced that the poultry business in general was rife with corruption, and they intended to use the fact that the Schechters (the surname literally means “ritual slaughterer” in Yiddish) received some of their live fowl from out-of-state (meaning they were involved in interstate commerce) to bring federal charges against them.

That autumn, the four Schechter brothers – Martin, Alex, Aaron and Sam – were tried and convicted in federal district court of 41 of the 60 counts. Each was sentenced to prison time and payment of a significant fine.

As kosher slaughterers, the brothers, who bought live poultry (leghorn fowl, colored fowl, “fancy Indianas” and fryers) from Pennsylvania and New York State, and killed and distributed them locally, were bound to uphold certain ethical standards, both in the way they killed the birds and in their dealings with employees.

In her book “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," Amity Shlaes says that the Hungarian-born Schechters were shocked at the way they had been treated by the authorities. They had cooperated with investigators in earlier cases, and were insistent that they followed the law. If employees had worked more than the number of hours permitted by the Live Poultry Code, one of the component sets of regulations of the NIRA, it had been because they needed the extra income, not because their bosses were slave-drivers.

Sick allegations

“The Schechters were especially frustrated that the government did not understand the consequences of its own ‘sick chicken’ allegations," writes Shlaes. "To sell a sick chicken broke the NRA code [National Recovery Administration, the overall framework established by the Roosevelt administration to overcome the Depression], and that was all that the government lawyers understood. But to suggest, as they had, that Schechter chickens were unfit was also to suggest something that the Schechter brothers viewed as far worse: that they were not good Jews.,,, that their kosher slaughterhouse was not really kosher [T]he poultry code officers had done something worse than anger the Schechters. They had offended their dignity.”

So, the brothers, together with their attorney, Joseph Heller, decided to fight. After their first appeal was rejected by the circuit court, they took their case to the Supreme Court.

Oral arguments in the case of Schechter v United States were heard by the court on May 2, 1935, and the nine justices handed down their unanimous ruling on May 27. In it, they not only overturned the earlier convictions, but they also effectively invalidated the NIRA in its entirety, sending the Roosevelt administration back to rewrite its recovery plan.

For the Schechters, however, the story didn't have such a happy ending. A year later, The New York Times reported that the family was penniless, having sunk $20,000 into their shared legal defense, that the business had broken up, and that the home shared by several generations of Schechters was going to have to be sold.

Nonetheless, the following November, after FDR's reelection, The Times reported that the family held no hard feelings against the president whose administration had bankrupted them. Joseph Schechter requested "to congratulate President Roosevelt through the newspapers and tell him that sixteen votes in our family were cast in his favor."