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Judicial activism and judicial restraint

Judicial activism and judicial restraint are two key terms in law. Judicial activism means judges use their personal views when making decisions, sometimes seen as overstepping. Judicial restraint is when judges limit their power, sticking strictly to the constitution. The Baker vs Carr case is a famous example of these concepts.

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
    Why would the decision in favor of Baker be considered activism? The court did not do the redistricting. That was left up to the state legislature to decide how the redistricting should be done...doing their own job. The court merely said the state's population was not represented equally. That, of course, has led to suits regarding gerrymandering, where the courts look for possible unfair districting that nullifies the votes of some particular segment of the population by race, party or other political grouping.
    (10 votes)
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    • blobby blue style avatar for user Amra Faraz
      I know this comment is from 3 yrs ago, but I wanted to give a reply in case someone has the same question.
      This is just an observation, and I may be wrong, but I think it's considered activism because by siding with Baker, the court is basically ordering the legislative branch to redistrict. The court is making the decision for the legislative branch to, instead of letting the legislative branch decide whether or not to redistrict.
      (6 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Are there any studies that show which Supreme Court justices have been more likely to engage in judicial activism? Also, are presidents from a particular political party more likely to appoint/nominate justices who engage in judicial activism?
    (4 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Senou Kounouho
      I can not answer your first question. However, to answer your second question, president would definitely like to appoint justices who engage in judicial activism that aligns with that president's political agenda. Nonetheless, those judges will have a hard time getting confirmed in the Senate, unless the Senate and president share the same political agenda.
      (11 votes)

Video transcript

- What we're gonna do in this video is talk about the terms judicial activism and judicial restraint. In many videos, we have talked about how the judicial branch, one of its main powers, is to be a check on the executive and legislative branch, that it can exercise judicial review over them. It can say that a legislative action, that a law, that a statute is unconstitutional. It can say that an executive action, say a rule or regulation or an executive order, is unconstitutional, but as it's doing that, as it's exercising its judicial review, how does it go about doing that? And this term judicial activism was first introduced by Arthur Schlesinger, who we've talked about in other videos, and it's meant to imply a judiciary that is not strictly just ruling based on maybe what the Constitution says but also their own personal ideas. So personal views. It sometimes has an implication that the judges are overreaching in some way. Some people might say, and this would be a little bit of a negative, "legislating from the bench." Legislating from the bench, and you'll often hear is that, "Hey, that judge or that court is legislating "from the bench," from the people who don't like their ruling. They're saying, "Hey, they're not strictly looking "at the law. "They're trying to make their own laws "through their rulings." Now some would say that it's necessary for the judicial to do this because they are interpreting the Constitution in the world as it is, and the world that we are in changes over time. So it is really a form of positive activism, that they are defending liberties, that they are defending rights, especially in the social context that we're in. I'll leave you to decide whether you think this is a good idea or not. Now judicial restraint is the opposite of it. This is a situation where the judges or the courts limit their power, so limit their own power, their own power, where they say, "Hey, look, our job is to just be the umpire or the referee. "Our job is not to make new rules, "and so we are just going to strictly think "about whether something is constitutional "or whether it is not," and one of the most seminal cases on judicial activism versus judicial restraint happened in the early 1960s, and that is the case of Baker versus Carr, and so what happens is is that Baker is a resident of Shelby County, Tennessee. He was actually of the former mayor of a town outside of Memphis, which is in this area right over here, and he says that, "Look, the state is not reapportioning "its legislative districts the way it should be," that in general every 10 years there is a census, and based on that, we have been understanding of where the population sits, and then the state should be reapportioning districts based on population, but what Baker argued is is that the state of Tennessee actually did not redistrict since 1901, after the census of 1900, and it was now the early 1960s, and he says because of that, and he invoked the 14th amendment, you weren't getting equal protection, that people in his county that had gotten increasingly urban and had gotten increasingly dense over the course of those 60 years, that they were getting the same representation despite having a larger population than some of the rural areas where they have a lower population and had the same number of representatives, and so he takes this case against the Secretary of State of Tennessee at the time, who was Carr, and it eventually gets to the Supreme Court, and the essential question in Baker versus Carr is whether the courts even have jurisdiction over legislative districting because the districting was a power of the state legislature in Tennessee, and in this case, the United States Supreme Court actually did vote in favor of Baker. So not only did they say that Baker was right in asking for this redistricting, it had huge implications in saying that, yes, courts, like the United States Supreme Court, do have jurisdiction over something that was officially a legislative duty, telling the legislative that, "Look, you've got to do this 'cause "by not doing this action, "by exercising your discretion there, "you might not be allowing everyone to have "equal protection." Many have argued, including the two dissenters to the opinion that this was a form of judicial activism. It increased the power of the judiciary, and to appreciate the view of the United States Supreme Court that they do have jurisdiction over legislative districting, here is part of Associate Justice Douglas's concurring opinion. "Where the performance of a duty is left to the discretion "and good judgment of an executive officer, "the judiciary will not compel the exercise "of his discretion one way or the other... "for to do so would be to take over the office...." So he's saying, look, when it is someone's job where there's an executive officer to do this duty, then the courts should not have jurisdiction there, but then he goes on to write, "There is no doubt that the federal courts have jurisdiction "of controversies concerning voting rights. "The Civil Rights Act gives them authority "to redress the deprivation under color of any state law "of any right, privilege or immunity secured "by the Constitution of the United States "or by any Act of Congress providing "for equal rights of citizens...." Really saying that, look, if the court can see that some right is being violated, some right is described in any under the state law, under the United States Constitution, then the courts do have jurisdiction. "The right to vote in both federal "and state elections was protected "by the judiciary long before that right received "the explicit protection it is now accorded." So he's saying, look, even before the Civil Rights Act, even before the 14th amendment, that this was something that was part of the charter of the judiciary, part of the federal court system, and so it does lean in favor of judicial activism because you can imagine courts, and they have cited Baker versus Carr since the 1960s repeatedly as reason, saying, hey look, we're trying to protect people's rights, and people have a right to do X, Y, or Z, even if it hasn't been explicitly legislated. Now there were two dissenters, and this is what the dissenters wrote. "The courts authority--possessed of neither of the purse "nor the sword..." So here, the purse, that's the legislative branch that can think about budgets or the sword, that's the executive branch. The president's the commander in chief. "Ultimately rests on sustained public confidence "in its moral sanction." Let me underline that. "On sustained public confidence in its moral sanction. "Such feeling must be nourished "by the Court's complete detachment, "in fact and in appearance, "from political entanglement and by abstention "from injecting itself into the clash "of political forces in political settlements." So here, Associate Justice Frankfurter, in his dissenting opinion, is saying, look, we should stay out of this, that not only is it not our part to rule here, to say that, hey look, the legislative needs to do this redistricting again. He's saying that it actually undermines the credibility of the court, that the credibility "ultimately rests on sustained public confidence "in its moral sanction," and that by ruling in favor of Baker the court was overstepping of these bounds, that people would say, hey, you're starting to legislate from the bench. You're trying to get involved in the political, even though the court is supposed to stay above the fray of the political, or another way to think about this is that Associate Justice Frankfurter subscribed to the idea of judicial restraint and felt that the other six justices that were voting in favor of Baker were practicing to some degree judicial activism. They were getting into the territory of the other branches of government.