Tuesday, November 22, 2005

On "Judicial Activism"

I hate this phrase. I really do. Use of the phrase usually constitutes some act of faith, meaning that it means whatever the person saying it thinks it does. For many conservatives - especially those without a lot of legal background - it generally means "judges who sit on cases that don't turn out the way we think they should not having looked at the actual case, like when criminals get off on 'technicalities'." For many liberals, it means "judges who strike down laws", or "make decisions", whereby they giddily point out that conservative judges are just as "activist". I think both of them are wrong in their understanding.

To me, a "judicial activist" is one who first makes a policy decision based on what they think the law SHOULD be, and then only after their mind has been made up, justifies it with some case law, statutes, or most egregiously, Constitutional Amendments that may or may not actually apply. This definition encompasses those who make decisions that fall outside the realm of justiciabilty, are manifestly political questions, or are not even within that court's jurisdiction.

Striking down laws is NOT, in my view, judicial activism. Sometimes they need and deserve to be struck down - but only under existing rules of law, not because the judge thinks they're bad policy. Making a decision based on analogy when there simply isn't case law, a statute, or some other source of law directly on point is likewise not offensive - so long as the decision rests within the logical scope of the law as it exists, and doesn't unilaterally expand some conception of rights, then such a decision is exactly WHY we have judges at all.

Every so often someone thinks they've "got me" advocating judicial activism. A few weeks ago, in my smoking thread, I was accused of it when I said I hoped small business owners would use the well developed doctrine of regulatory takings to seek compensation for the wrong that the Seattle City Council did to the owners of those businesses who will suffer for their actions. That's not activism in my mind because the legal doctrine is already well developed. Last week in one of my classes, I was accused of advocating it because I thought a judge who determined that a man who had sex with his ex-wife's minor adoptive daughter didn't need to prove with a Harvard study that his actions were bad for the other kids of the marriage. Again, I think that's within a judges power to decide, because it falls well within the logic and common sense of the existing statutory scheme even if that particular case's facts weren't specifically contemplated.

There is no question that under such a definition, there certainly ARE "conservative activist judges." I happen to think Justice O'Connor was such a justice (and to a lesser extent Kennedy), and that Harriet Miers would have been one as well. And that's why I'm not sorry to see J. O'Connor go, and why I was opposed to Ms. Miers' nomination. Where I see them, I oppose them. Even Justice Scalia, who so vocally opposes such an approach, can fall prey to the problem (the only plausible explanation for his concurrence in the Raich medical marijuana case decided last year). When he does it, I have no problem pointing out my disappointment.

But I think it's clear that liberals are MORE prone to this kind of "decision first, justification after" kind of "reasoning." I say that because most liberals espouse a "living Constitution," kept alive by judicial decision rather than the amendment process. This concept cannot exist without the ability of judges to make policy changes to text unchanged by the people's elected political representatives.

I know I can trust a judge when I occasionally see this in an opinion: "I personally think this law is ridiculous, and even potentially damaging. I would vote against it if I were a legislator. But this is not within my purview to decide, and therefore I decline to address the merits." You will never, ever see that in a Ginsberg or Souter opinion. You WILL see it from those most often attacked as "conservative judicial activists" - Thomas and Scalia. You see it in Alito opinions as well.

Judges - and Supreme Court Justices in particular - have grown far more powerful than the founders envisioned. Their decisions are unreviewable in many cases, and nearly impossible to get "undone". As such, they have the responsibility to ask themselves in every instance, "Just because I have an opinion on this topic, is it for me to make this decision?" When they refuse to do it, the balance of power among the three branches of government is upset, and we're faced with ridiculous efforts to counter it like gay marriage Constitutional amendments, further eroding the power of the document and the foundation of our country.


PubliusRex said...

Three characteristics of "judicial activists" come to mind to me:

1) They don't adhere to the idea of judicial restraint.
2) They feel no compulsion to actually read the text of positive law.
3) They begin, rather than end, with policy.

Applying these principles, striking down a law because it does not comport with the Constitution is not judicial activism. It's an essential function of the court. See Morrison. Fabricating a right out of nowhere, i.e. the fundamental right to an abortion, was judicial activism. See Roe.

Anonymous said...

Judicial review was once "fabricat[ed] out of nowhere." Was John Marshall a judicial activist?