Judicial activism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Term applied to court decisions seen as going beyond the usual canons of constitutional or statutory interpretation; it is the opposite of judicial self-restraint.

The term can be applied to any decision in which the Court alters or nullifies the policy of another policymaker such as Congress or the president. Judicial activism occurs whenever the Court exercises judicial review or interprets a constitutional or statutory provision to mean something different than it was commonly thought to mean. Typically, however, the term is used negatively by critics of a Court decision or doctrine. Few justices or judges overtly champion judicial activism.Judicial self-restraintJudicial self-restraint

Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court took on somewhat of an activist role. Members of the Warren Court included (clockwise from upper left) Abe Fortas, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Warren, Hugo L. Black, and John Marshall Harlan II.

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Sometimes the Court is criticized as being too countermajoritarian. As an unelected body, critics charge, the Court should be cautious about finding laws adopted by democratically elected bodies unconstitutional. The classic arguments on this issue are found in Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opinion and Justice Felix Frankfurter’s dissent in the compulsory flag salute case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[case]West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette[West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette] (1943). The preferred freedoms doctrine of the 1940’s and its modern counterpart, the strict scrutiny level of review, also represent countermajoritarian activism because they consciously place minority rights ahead of majority preferences.

Critics also charge the Court with activism when it interprets a constitutional provision differently from its presumed original intent or the normal meaning of its text. Roe v. Wade[case]Roe v. Wade[Roe v. Wade] (1973) is good example of the Court’s giving a new meaning to the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. Another example of this type of activism is Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall’s finding that capital punishment is unconstitutional.(The latter’s dissent in Gregg v. Georgia, 1976, is a good illustration of an activist opinion.) Brennan generally defended judicial activism (although not by name) when he argued that the spirit of constitutional provisions must be interpreted to apply to the United States in the twentieth century. Occasionally the Court is charged with judicial activism when it overrules or severely modifies one of its own precedents (for example, when Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896).

Judicial activism can help both conservative and liberal causes. From 1890 to 1937 when the Court appeared to support business interests by developing the freedom of contract and dual federalism doctrines (as in Lochner v. New York, 1905, and Hammer v. Dagenhart, 1918), Progressives and later New Dealers protested loudly that the Court was engaged in excessive activism. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953-1969), the shoe was on the other foot. Conservatives charged the Court with liberal activism for making controversial decisions that significantly reshaped the law in criminal justice, legislative apportionment, right of privacy, libel, and other areas. Although less activist following the Warren era, the Court still engaged in some activism such as bringing commercial speech under First Amendment protection. However, some 1990’s decisions were activist in a conservative sense, for example Printz v. United States[case]Printz v. United States[Printz v. United States] (1997), which struck down portions of the 1993 Brady Act controlling the sale of handguns.

Further Reading
  • Bork, Robert H., ed. “A Country I Do Not Recognize”: The Legal Assault on American Values. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2005.
  • Keck, Thomas Moylan The Most Activist Supreme Court in History: The Road to Modern Judicial Conservatism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Powers, Stephen. The Least Dangerous Branch? Consequences of Judicial Activism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.
  • Rosen, Jeffrey. The Most Democratic Branch: How the Courts Serve America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Schwartz, Herman, ed. The Rehnquist Court: Judicial Activism on the Right. New York: Hill & Wang, 2002.
  • Tushnet, Mark. A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
  • Wolfe, Christopher. Judicial Activism: Bulwark of Freedom or Precarious Security? Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Capital punishment

Constitutional interpretation

Contract, freedom of

Hammer v. Dagenhart

Judicial review

Judicial scrutiny

Judicial self-restraint

Lochner v. New York

Original intent

Preferred freedoms doctrine

Roe v. Wade

West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

Categories: History