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definitions - judicial activism

judicial activism (n.)

1.an interpretation of the U.S. constitution holding that the spirit of the times and the needs of the nation can legitimately influence judicial decisions (particularly decisions of the Supreme Court)

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Judicial activism


Judicial activism describes judicial rulings suspected of being based on personal or political considerations rather than on existing law. It is sometimes used as an antonym of judicial restraint.[1]:1 The definition of judicial activism, and which specific decisions are activist, is a controversial political issue, particularly in the United States. This phrase is generally traced back to a comment by Thomas Jefferson, referring to the "despotic behaviour" of Federalist federal judges, in particular, John Marshall.[2] The question of judicial activism is closely related to constitutional interpretation, statutory construction, and separation of powers.


  Origins of the term

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. introduced the term "judicial activism" in a January 1947 Fortune magazine article titled "The Supreme Court: 1947".[3]

The phrase has been controversial since its beginning. An article by Craig Green, "An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism," is highly 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."[4]


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."[5]

Political science professor Bradley Canon has posited six dimensions along which judge courts may be perceived as activist:[6]:239 majoritarianism, interpretive stability, interpretive fidelity, substance/democratic process, specificity of policy, and availability of an alternate policymaker. David 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.[7]

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"[8]:2–3; 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."[9]:2 Others such as current Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have scolded this approach as unhelpful because it relies on subjective judgments.[10][11]


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.[12] 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."[13]

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.[14]

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.


The following have been cited as examples of judicial activism:

  Geographical differences

While the term was first coined and is often used in the United States, it has also been applied in other countries, particularly common law jurisdictions.

  See also


  1. ^ Christopher Wolfe, Judicial activism, Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 0-8476-8531-4.
  2. ^ Haines & Sherwood, The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government and Politics: 1789–1835, 1944, p.209
  3. ^ Kmiec, Keenan D. (2004). "The Origin and Current Meanings of 'Judicial Activism'". Cal. L. Rev. 92: 1441, 1447. "Schlesinger's article profiled all nine Supreme Court justices on the Court at that time and explained the alliances and divisions among them. The article characterized Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy, and Rutledge as the 'Judicial Activists' and Justices Frankfurter, Jackson, and Burton as the 'Champions of Self Restraint.' Justice Reed and Chief Justice Vinson comprised a middle group." 
  4. ^ "An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism" Craig Green, August 2008, p. 4
  5. ^ As quoted in "Takings Clause Jurisprudence: Muddled, Perhaps; Judicial Activism, No" DF O'Scannlain, Geo. JL & Pub. Pol'y, 2002
  6. ^ Bradley C. Canon – "Defining the Dimensions of Judicial Activism," Judicature, 66.6, 1983
  7. ^ Interpreting the Constitution Chicago Public Radio – Odyssey, September 13, 2005, archived on January 3, 2009 from the original
  8. ^ Kermit Roosevelt, III, The Myth of Judicial Activism: Making Sense of Supreme Court Decisions, Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-300-12691-3, ISBN 978-0-300-12691-4.
  9. ^ Wallace, Chris; Olson, Theodore (August 8, 2010). "Ted Olson on Debate Over Judicial Activism and Same-Sex Marriage". Fox News Sunday (Fox News Channel). http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/fox-news-sunday/transcript/ted-olson-debate-over-judicial-activism-and-same-sex-marriage. 
  10. ^ Frederick P. Lewis, The context of judicial activism: the endurance of the Warren Court legacy in a conservative age, Rowman & Littlefield: 1999, ISBN 0-8476-8992-1
  11. ^ Matt Sedensky, "Justice questions way court nominees are grilled," Associated Press, May 14, 2010, accessed May 14, 2010.
  12. ^ Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in Romer v. Evans; Romer, Governor of Colorado, et al. v. Evans et al. (94-1039), 517 U.S. 620 (1996).
  13. ^ Brian Z. Tamanaha, Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide: The Role of Politics in Judging, Princeton University Press, 2010
  14. ^ John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, chapters 4–6.
  15. ^ Vincent Martin Bonventre, "Judicial activism, judges' speech, and merit selection: conventional wisdom and nonsense," Albany Law Review, Summer 2005, Judicial activism, judges' speech, and merit selection: conventional wisdom and nonsense Albany Law Review, 2005
  16. ^ Roe v. Wade a classic example of judicial activism The Daily Campus, September 12, 2008
  17. ^ The real case of judicial activism The Times Herald, June 2, 2009
  18. ^ Mann, Thomas E. (January 26, 2010). "Commentary: Citizens United vs. FEC is an egregious exercise of judicial activism". McClatchy News Service. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/01/26/82982/commentary-citizens-united-is.html. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  19. ^ Stone, Geoffrey R. (2012). "Citizens United and Conservative Judicial Activism". University of Illinois Law Review 2012 (2): 485–500. http://illinoislawreview.org/wp-content/ilr-content/articles/2012/2/Stone.pdf. 
  20. ^ "California Officials React To Proposition 8 Ruling". KRCR-TV. August 4, 2010. http://www.krcrtv.com/news/24515963/detail.html. Retrieved 2010-08-05.  Congressman Wally Herger issued a statement, "This is simply another example of judicial activism and legislating from the bench..."
    Graves, Bill (August 4, 2010). "California court ruling lifts hopes for Oregon gay marriage supporters". The Oregonian. http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/08/california_court_ruling_lifts.html. Retrieved 2010-08-05.  Tim Nashif, political director of the Oregon Family Council, "We think it is judicial activism at its worst."
    Donovan, Charles A (August 4, 2010). "Prop. 8 ruling an act of extreme judicial activism". Orange County Register. http://www.ocregister.com/opinion/marriage-260724-state-judge.html. Retrieved 2010-08-05.  Charles A. Donovan of the Heritage Foundation, "Today's decision by a federal district judge in San Francisco striking down state constitutional protections for marriage and inventing a spurious federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage is an example of extreme judicial activism."


  • Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law (1996), Merriam-Webster. ISBN 0-87779-604-1
  • Bryan A. Garner (1999). Black's Law Dictionary, 8th Edition. West Group. ISBN 0-314-15199-0. 

  Further reading

  Legal books

  • Paul O. Carrese, 2003. The Cloaking of Power: Montesquieu, Blackstone, and the Rise of Judicial Activism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Duncan Kennedy, 1998. A Critique of Adjudication (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Carrol D. Kilgore, 1977. Judicial Tyranny: An Inquiry into the Integrity of the Federal Judiciary (Thomas Nelson). ISBN 978-0-8407-4060-1
  • 105th Cong., I @ Sess. I, 1997. Judicial Activism: Defining the Problem and its Impact: Testimony before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism & Property Rights (U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Publishers), 205pp. ISBN 0-16-055917-0
  • Sterling Harwood, 1996. Judicial Activism: A Restrained Defense (London: Austin & Winfield Publishers), 167pp. ISBN 1-880921-68-5.
  • Christopher Wolfe, 1997. Judicial Activism, 2nd ed. (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littfield Publishers, Inc.).
  • Kenneth M. Holland, editor, 1991. Judicial Activism in Comparative Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan).
  • Ronald Dworkin, 1988. Law's Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Alexander M. Bickel, 1986. The Least Dangerous Branch 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
  • Arthur Selwyn Miller, 1982. Toward Increased Judicial Activism (Greenwood Press).
  • Ronald Dworkin, 1977. Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Lino A. Graglia, 1976. Disaster by Decree (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
  • Michael Rebell and Arthur R. Block, 1982. Educational Policy Making and the Courts: An Empirical Study of Judicial Activism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • H.L.A. Hart, 1961. The Concept of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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