Judicial activism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Judicial activism refers to judicial rulings that are suspected of being based on personal opinion, rather than on existing law. It is sometimes used as an antonym of judicial restraint. The definition of judicial activism and the specific decisions that are activist are controversial political issues. The question of judicial activism is closely related to constitutional interpretation, statutory construction, and separation of powers.

Contents

Etymology

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. introduced the term "judicial activism" in a January 1947 Fortune magazine article titled "The Supreme Court: 1947".

The phrase has been controversial since its beginning. An article by Craig Green, "An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism," is critical of Schlesinger's use of the term; "Schlesinger's original introduction of judicial activism was doubly blurred: not only did he fail to explain what counts as activism, he also declined to say whether activism is good or bad."

Even before this phrase was first used, the general concept already existed. For example, Thomas Jefferson referred to the "despotic behaviour" of Federalist federal judges, in particular Chief Justice John Marshall.

Definitions

Black's Law Dictionary defines judicial activism as a "philosophy of judicial decision-making whereby judges allow their personal views about public policy, among other factors, to guide their decisions."

Political science professor Bradley Canon has posited six dimensions along which judge courts may be perceived as activist: majoritarianism, interpretive stability, interpretive fidelity, substance/democratic process, specificity of policy, and availability of an alternate policymaker. David A. Strauss has argued that judicial activism can be narrowly defined as one or more of three possible actions: overturning laws as unconstitutional, overturning judicial precedent, and ruling against a preferred interpretation of the constitution.

Others have been less confident of the term's meaning, finding it instead to be little more than a rhetorical shorthand. Kermit Roosevelt III has argued that "in practice 'activist' turns out to be little more than a rhetorically charged shorthand for decisions the speaker disagrees with"; likewise, the solicitor general under George W. Bush, Theodore Olson, said in an interview on Fox News Sunday, in regards to a case for same-sex marriage he had successfully litigated, that "most people use the term 'judicial activism' to explain decisions that they don't like." Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has said that, "An activist court is a court that makes a decision you don't like."

Debate

Detractors of judicial activism charge that it usurps the power of the elected branches of government or appointed agencies, damaging the rule of law and democracy. Defenders of judicial activism say that in many cases it is a legitimate form of judicial review, and that the interpretation of the law must change with changing times.

A third view is that so-called "objective" interpretation of the law does not exist. According to law professor Brian Z. Tamanaha, "Throughout the so-called formalist age, it turns out, many prominent judges and jurists acknowledged that there were gaps and uncertainties in the law and that judges must sometimes make choices." Under this view, any judge's use of judicial discretion will necessarily be shaped by that judge's personal and professional experience and his or her views on a wide range of matters, from legal and juridical philosophy to morals and ethics. This implies a tension between granting flexibility (to enable the dispensing of justice) and placing bounds on that flexibility (to hold judges to ruling from legal grounds rather than extralegal ones).

Some proponents of a stronger judiciary argue that the judiciary helps provide checks and balances and should grant itself an expanded role to counterbalance the effects of transient majoritarianism, i.e., there should be an increase in the powers of a branch of government which is not directly subject to the electorate, so that the majority cannot dominate or oppress any particular minority through its elective powers.

Moreover, they argue that the judiciary strikes down both elected and unelected official action, in some instances acts of legislative bodies reflecting the view the transient majority may have had at the moment of passage and not necessarily the view the same legislative body may have at the time the legislation is struck down. Also, the judges that are appointed are usually appointed by previously elected executive officials so that their philosophy should reflect that of those who nominated them, that an independent judiciary is a great asset to civil society since special interests are unable to dictate their version of constitutional interpretation with threat of stopping political donations.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Judicial activism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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