Liberty is an inherently offensive lifestyle. Living in a free society guarantees that each one of us will see our most cherished principles and beliefs questioned and in some cases mocked. That psychic discomfort is the price we pay for basic civic peace. It's worth it. It's a pragmatic principle. Defend everyone else's rights, because if you don't there is no one to defend yours. -- MaxedOutMama

I don't just want gun rights... I want individual liberty, a culture of self-reliance....I want the whole bloody thing. -- Kim du Toit

The most glaring example of the cognitive dissonance on the left is the concept that human beings are inherently good, yet at the same time cannot be trusted with any kind of weapon, unless the magic fairy dust of government authority gets sprinkled upon them.-- Moshe Ben-David

The cult of the left believes that it is engaged in a great apocalyptic battle with corporations and industrialists for the ownership of the unthinking masses. Its acolytes see themselves as the individuals who have been "liberated" to think for themselves. They make choices. You however are just a member of the unthinking masses. You are not really a person, but only respond to the agendas of your corporate overlords. If you eat too much, it's because corporations make you eat. If you kill, it's because corporations encourage you to buy guns. You are not an individual. You are a social problem. -- Sultan Knish

All politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war. -- Billy Beck

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Left is Still Trying to Strictly Redefine "Judicial Activism"

I noticed this with the Roberts confirmation hearings, but didn't say anything about it at the time. Once again the Left attempts to redefine words to mean what they want them to mean so as to confuse the issue. Case in point, Michael Bryan of Blog for Arizona,, posts on the question of just what is "judicial activism":
Who's the activist? The only quantifiable measure of a judges 'activism' is how often s/he invalidates a law duly passed by Congress.
He then gives this table indicating how "activist" each sitting member on the Supreme Court is:
Thomas 65.63 %
Kennedy 64.06 %
Scalia 56.25 %
Rehnquist 46.88 %
O’Connor 46.77 %
Souter 42.19 %
Stevens 39.34 %
Ginsburg 39.06 %
Breyer 28.13 %
I left this comment:
That's funny. I thought part of the "checks and balances" function of the Judicial branch was to, you know, check the power of the Legislative branch? Not merely rubber-stamp its legislation. If Congress overreaches the powers delegated to it under the Constitution, the Courts are supposed to rein it in. This is to protect the rights of the minority against the power of majorities. As Justice Scalia (56.25%) has put it, "The only reason you need a constitution is because some things you don't want the majority to be able to change. That's my most important function as a judge in this system. I have to tell the majority to take a hike."

"Activism" on the court, on the other hand, is inventing law - finding things in laws already written that were never intended. As 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski put it, "build(ing) magnificent legal edifices on elliptical constitutional phrases - or even the white spaces between lines of constitutional text." Creating law is a power reserved to the legislative branch by the Constitution.

The Courts aren't empowered, for example, to tell the Massachusetts legislature that they must pass "gay marriage" legislation (not "civil union"), and set a deadline to do so.

Not that that stopped the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

You see, the SCoMA decided that the MA Constitution meant that "gay marriage" was required under law, even though it had never meant that before. No Massachusetts legislature had ever written a law that said that. No plurality of Massachusetts voters had ever voted on any law like that, but four of seven Justices sitting on the bench decided for everyone in Massachusetts what the law really meant, although the people who wrote and ratified that Constitution would have (I can say with some confidence) disagreed with that finding.

That is "judicial activism" - a tiny minority telling everyone else what is and isn't right - with essentially no legal recourse but the amendment process. It renders constitutions worthless, because tiny black-robed minorities get to decide what the law means on a day-to-day basis, and can change that meaning at any time.

Sorry, Michael, but you've got it exactly backwards. "Invalidating laws passed by Congress" isn't "judicial activism," it's the job description for the Judicial Branch.

Based on that understanding, I'd say that Thomas is the most on-the-ball Justice sitting on the Supreme Court today.
The source for Michael's post was this New York Times piece, So, Who are the Activists? by Yale law professor Paul Gewirtz and recent Yale law graduate Chad Golder. That piece opens:
WHEN Democrats or Republicans seek to criticize judges or judicial nominees, they often resort to the same language. They say that the judge is "activist." But the word "activist" is rarely defined. Often it simply means that the judge makes decisions with which the critic disagrees.

In order to move beyond this labeling game, we've identified one reasonably objective and quantifiable measure of a judge's activism, and we've used it to assess the records of the justices on the current Supreme Court.

Here is the question we asked: How often has each justice voted to strike down a law passed by Congress?
Note that the authors have identified this question as one way to identify "judicial activism," but Michael has labled this test "The only quantifiable measure". The NYT piece notes, "Of course, calling Congressional legislation into question is not necessarily a bad thing. If a law is unconstitutional, the court has a responsibility to strike it down." But Michael characterizes "striking down laws passed by Congress" thus:
Generally, those who are touted as 'conservative' judges who 'strictly apply the law', do not such thing. They legislate from the bench by second-guessing Congress almost half the time, or more.
I would argue that the supposedly liberal members of SCOTUS - who are supposed to be protecting the rights of the individual against government tyranny (I believe that's part of the liberal creed, but not the Leftist one) - are falling down on the job. Badly. The NYT piece continues:
Since the Supreme Court assumed its current composition in 1994, by our count it has upheld or struck down 64 Congressional provisions. That legislation has concerned Social Security, church and state, and campaign finance, among many other issues. We examined the court's decisions in these cases and looked at how each justice voted, regardless of whether he or she concurred with the majority or dissented.
You'll note the piece takes no notice of what those cases were specifically, or who voted which way on them. No, the only measure is whether or not a Justice voted to "strike down" legislation.

Kelo v. New London (private property rights), voted to uphold: Kennedy, Souter, Ginsberg, Bryer, and Stevens. Voted to strike down: O'Connor, Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas.

Raich v. Gonzales (medical marijuana), voted to uphold: Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer. Voted to strike down: O'Connor, Rehnquist, and Thomas.

McConnell v. FEC (Campaign finance reform), voted to uphold: Stevens, O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Voted to strike down: Scalia, Kennedy, Rehnquist, and Thomas.

Note which side Rehnquist and Thomas are on in all three cases. Now tell me that "judicial activism" by this definition is a bad thing.

Ted Frank at Point of Law noted on the Kelo decision:
Justice Kennedy's concurrence creates a brand-new test: "There may be private transfers in which the risk of undetected impermissible favoritism of private parties is so acute that a presumption (rebuttable or otherwise) of invalidity is warranted under the Public Use Clause." This test is so amorphous to be effectively standardless, requiring case-by-case adjudication, thus effectively transforming the judicial branch into a super-legislature with the power to veto condemnations engaged in by the executive branch—after extensive litigation over whether the favoritism is "permissible" or "impermissible," of course. Like many other cases in the last decade, the Supreme Court's decision vests additional political power in itself.
Big surprise. That seems to be the natural condition for all forms of government. I submit that the "test" Professor Gewirtz and Mr. Golder have concocted is perfectly useless as an indicator of much, at least by itself.

Thomas Sowell has an excellent piece up on the topic, Judicial Activism Reconsidered. He begins:
Like many catchwords, "judicial activism" has acquired so many different meanings as to obscure more than it reveals. Yet it is not a term that can simply be ignored as intellectually "void for vagueness" for at the heart of it are concerns about the very meaning and survival of law. Abandonment of the term not being a viable option, clarification becomes imperative.

"Judicial activism" and "judicial restraint" raise logically obvious but often ignored questions: Activism toward what? Restraint toward what? Are judges deemed to be activist or restrained toward (1) the current popular majority, (2) the legislature representing the current popular majority, (3) the statutes passed by present or past legislatures, (4) the acts of current of past executive or administrative agencies, (5) the meaning of the words in the Constitution, (6) the principles or purposes of those who wrote the Constitution, or (7) the legal precedents established by previous judicial interpretations of the Constitution?
It would appear to me that there are at least seven objective and quantifiable tests identified right there, not just one. Read the whole piece. Professor Sowell is far better at this than I am.

UPDATE, 11/2: The comments over at Michael's original post are kind of amusing.

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