Judicial Activism

Judicial activism has caused a debate in the United States. When the judges on the court are more liberal, republicans and other conservatives call for judicial restraint. When the judges on the court are conservative, democrats and other liberals call for judicial restraint. So is judicial activism good or bad?

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Table of contents

    This article explores the concept of judicial activism. We will talk about the loose definition of judicial activism and how conservative judicial activism plays out in the US. We will also look at some examples of judicial activism, and the arguments for and against the concept.

    What is Judicial Activism?

    Judicial activism is a political view that supports the Court's power to interpret laws while considering US or State Constitutions and the public's opinions at the time. A judge that rules based on political or personal reasoning has used judicial activism.

    The term was coined by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. in 1947 but was a general concept before that. However, it has been argued that the term hasn't been properly defined by Schlesinger or any other scholar.

    During the early years of its usage, judicial activism was synonymous with civil rights activism. However, nowadays judicial activism is typically used as a criticism.

    ...Most judges regard 'judicial activism' as an alien 'ism' to which their misguided brethren sometimes fall prey." - Judge Louis Pollack, 1956.

    The opposite viewpoint is called Judicial Restraint. Those who support judicial restraint believe the Court should only use the power of judicial review in unusual cases.

    Conservative Judicial Activism

    At the beginning of the 20th century, conservatives adopted judicial activism as a way to limit regulations by both the federal and state governments and protect property rights.

    The first decade of the 21st century renewed conservative judicial activism. Conservatives, mainly Republicans, supported the Court's use of judicial activism to protect conservative constitutional values such as federalism and religious liberty. There has been a call for judicial engagement to protect the structures and rights written in the constitution, especially economic rights.

    Arguments for Judicial Activism

    Judicial activism is an important tool to correct injustices and promote social change. Since the legislature makes laws in favor of the majority, judicial activism provides protection against unjust laws for those in the minority. Many believe judicial activism is a crucial check against majoritarian tendencies found in the legislative branch. The civil rights era provides good examples of judicial activism in favor of minorities.

    Those who support judicial activism believe that the meaning of the Constitution should be interpreted relative to the beliefs and values of society at the time. They argue that as time progresses there are situations arising that the Founding Fathers didn't anticipate, therefore judges need to use their judicial expertise to interpret existing laws and text.

    Criticism of Judicial Activism

    Critics believe that judicial activism will allow judges to gain more power and act in ways that harm democracy. If the judicial branch gains more power it would tip the power of checks and balances toward that branch of government.

    Another criticism against judicial activism is that judges are not trained to interpret laws and are not familiar with enough fields to be able to make their interpretations legitimate. Additionally, judicial activism violates the stare decisis doctrine which requires the courts to follow precedent.

    Of course, there is a potential to misuse judicial activism. If it is used too much, it could render many court rulings unenforceable and the public may not know which laws to obey if they are constantly overturned.

    Examples of Judicial Activism

    Judicial activism can occur in both liberal and conservative courts. The Warren Court (1953-1969) was the most liberal activist court and expanded civil rights and liberties, federal power, and judicial power. The Burger Court (1969-1986) was also a liberal activist court. It ruled on matters including abortion, capital punishment, and pornography. The Roberts Court (2005-present) has become the most conservative court. It has made rulings based on the judges' personal and political beliefs which include promoting conservative and business interests. The court is most known for overturning Roe v. Wade and striking down provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Judicial Activism Warren Court StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Warren Court is considered the most activist court in US history.

    Brown v. Board of Education

    The decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is considered an activist decision because it ignored the doctrine of stare decisis by refusing to follow the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The Warren Court found the "separate but equal" doctrine set by Plessy v. Ferguson to be unconstitutional and reversed over 50 years of precedent.

    More examples to take a look at include: Obergfell v. Hodges, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade.

    Pros and Cons of Judicial Activism

    To have a deeper understanding of the debate around judicial activism, we will take a look at the pros and cons of the concept.


    Judicial activism allows the Court to handle sensitive matters with care. This is illustrated by the Warren Court's handling of civil rights and liberties cases.

    Judges can strike down laws they believe are unjust even if precedent says the law should be upheld. A good example of this would be Brown v. Board of Education.

    Judicial activism allows judges to make rulings as they see fit, within the limits of the court's power, of course. Judges can raise the nation's trust in the judicial system by making decisions that are supported by the public opinion of the majority. It also allows judges to bypass any grey areas in laws like the Constitution.

    The judicial branch can make and implement decisions faster than the legislative and executive branches. Therefore, using judicial activism is a guaranteed way to dole out justice and raise the public's trust in the judicial system.


    In the US, the judicial branch is supposed to be independent and unbiased which is why their rulings are usually based on precedent. Judicial activism interferes with the judiciary's independence since judges can make rulings based on personal and political reasoning and can take into account public opinion on matters.

    If the judiciary becomes dependent on public opinion, it may lead to a breakdown in the rule of law. People may rush to the courts when they cannot get their way. If arbitration is overused it will be hard to maintain public law based on rules and laws. The US would become more susceptible to mob justice.

    Judicial Activism Breakdown in rule of law caused by judicial dependency StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - A breakdown in the rule of law can lead to mob justice.

    Deciding cases based on political and personal reasoning will cause confusion as new rulings will likely go against already set precedents. The parties will be confused as to which law or precedent applies and may only obey the one they feel benefits them the most.

    Judicial activism could lead to bribery and corruption. If judges become dependent on public opinion it opens them up to lobbyists. Groups with more money and popularity are more likely to get rulings in their favor.

    Judicial Activism - Key takeaways

    • Judicial activism is a political view that supports a judge's ability to hand down rulings by interpreting laws and taking into account public opinion at the time of the ruling.
    • Although judicial activism was initially looked at as similar to civil rights activism, it has taken on a negative connotation.
    • Judicial activism can occur in both conservative and liberal-leaning courts.
    • The pros of judicial activism include the ability to handle sensitive cases with care, strike down unjust laws, increase public trust in the judiciary, and dole out justice faster.
    • The cons of judicial activism include the loss of independence of the judiciary, loss of respect for the rule of law, devolution to mob justice, and biased rulings.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Judicial Activism

    What is judicial activism?

    Judicial activism supports the Court's power to make rulings based on their interpretation of laws and constitutions while also considering public opinion.

    Why is judicial activism important?

    Judicial activism is important because it allows judges to interpret laws based on current events and the views of the public.

    What is the meaning of the term judicial activism?

    Judicial activism is not well defined. However, many believe that when judges use political or personal reasoning to hand down rulings is considered judicial activism.

    How does judicial activism compare to judicial restraint?

    Judicial activism is the opposite of judicial restraint. Where judicial activism gives judges the ability to make decisions based on political and personal reasoning, judicial restraint requires that judges stick to the original interpretation of laws.

    Which of the following is an example of judicial activism?

    Brown v. Board of Education is the most well-known example of judicial activism. In the Court's decision, the 58-year-old precedent established by Plessy v. Ferguson was reversed to protect the rights of minorities in the US.

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