Sheldon Whitehouse Analyzes "Judicial Activism"

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has authored a thoughtful piece in the National Law Journal, one that makes an important contribution to our national dialogue on the role of the Supreme Court in Americans' lives. This is a must-read analysis of "judicial activism" - what it means, and how to identify it.

For years, using propaganda like "activist courts" and "legislating from the bench," the Right has demagogued against judges who protect basic American values like church-state separation, equal rights, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy. But the Roberts Court has made clear that the Right doesn't believe their own propaganda about "judicial activism."

Focusing attention on the real meaning of “judicial activism,” rather than simply using the term as an epithet to denigrate decisions one disagrees with, Sen. Whitehouse identifies five key characteristics - the "red flags"- that unmistakably signal judicial activism:

First, an activist court would be less likely to respect the judgments of the American people as expressed through state and federal legislation. ...

Second, an activist court would chafe at unwelcome prior precedents of the court. ...

Third, an activist court, facing the perennial choice between securing a broad consensus and allowing a bare majority to carry the day, would go down the path that allowed it to reach farther in the ideologically satisfactory direction. As a result, an activist court would likely render 5-4 decisions rather than strive to find broader common ground across the court. ...

Fourth, a discernible pattern of results would likely emerge: Whether conservative or liberal, an activist court would issue decisions consistent with its ideological preferences. ...

Fifth, an activist court might be prepared to violate rules and tenets of appellate decision-making that have long guided courts of final appeal. ...

Sen. Whitehouse then analyzes the jurisprudence of the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court and demonstrates, step by step, that it raises all five of the red flags of "judicial activism." His objective analysis shows that the conservative justices who are praised by the right wing exemplify the judicial activism that the right claims to oppose.

The centerpiece of a generation’s worth of right-wing propaganda on the courts crumbles.

The article finishes on a hopeful note:

"Judicial activism" is often in the eye of the beholder. If, as I have suggested here, we can identify red flags for judicial activism, the conservative bloc on the current Supreme Court is flying all of those flags. Let's hope that [the 2010-2011] term sees a renewal of the best traditions of the Court, not merely the imposition on our Republic of the ideological or political will of a determined, but bare, majority of the justices.

Indeed, let us hope.

PFAW