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The Judiciary

Judicial Philosophy, Politics, and Policy

The State Courts

Review Questions

Although judges do not run on a platform, as do elected officials, they nevertheless hold political beliefs that influence their decisions. People strongly debate the role of the courts in politics and the role that personal beliefs and political philosophy should play.

Judicial Philosophy

Judicial philosophy is the way in which a judge understands and interprets the law. Laws are universal, but they must be applied to particular cases with unique circumstances. To do this, judges interpret the law, determining its meaning and sometimes the intent of those who wrote it.

The main types of contrasting judicial philosophies include judicial activism versus judicial restraint, loose constructionism versus strict constructionism, and living document versus original intent.

Some judges develop a philosophy of activism, using the bench to enact social and political change. Other judges practice a philosophy of restraint, believing that judges must interpret the law strictly rather than seek to make new laws. And all judges, regardless of their philosophies, develop their own methods of reading the Constitution. Some judicial philosophies tend to coincide with certain political views. Most strict constructionists, for example, are also advocates of judicial restraint, but not all. Similarly, many advocates of judicial restraint also follow the doctrine of original intent. These views, however, do not always overlap. As a result, judicial philosophies are not the same as political ideologies.

We explore these philosophies in more detail in the following tables.

 
JUDICIAL ACTIVISM VERSUS JUDICIAL RESTRAINT

Judicial Activism

Judicial Restraint

Beliefs

Courts should overturn bad laws and create new policies Courts must interpret the law, not legislate new policies

Example

Warren Court (1953–1969) Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Key Decisions

Advanced civil rights and the rights of the accused Limits on expansion of federal power

Politics

Tend to be liberal Tend to be conservative
 
LOOSE CONSTRUCTIONISM VERSUS STRICT CONSTRUCTIONISM

Loose Constructionism

Strict Constructionism

Beliefs

Courts should read the Constitution expansively and should not limit themselves to what is explicitly stated Courts should not reinterpret the Constitution

Example

Warren Court (1953–1969) Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Key Decisions

Exclusionary rule, right to a government-funded attorney for the poor Restrictions on abortion, eliminating federal rules for state governments

Politics

Tend to be liberal Tend to be conservative
 
LIVING DOCUMENT VERSUS ORIGINAL INTENT

Living Document

Original Intent

Beliefs

The Constitution must grow and adapt to new circumstances. Courts should interpret the Constitution as the framers intended.

Example

Warren Court (1953–1969) Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)

Key Decisions

Expansion of use of interstate commerce clause Restrictions on privacy rights

Politics

Tend to be liberal Tend to be conservative

Checks on the Courts

The legislative and executive branches check the power of the judiciary branch in several ways. The main way of limiting the courts’ power lies with judicial implementation, the process by which a court’s decision is enforced. The executive branch must enforce court decisions, but if the president or governor disagrees with a ruling, he or she sometimes ignores it or only partially enforces it. Legislatures can also limit the courts through the power of the purse. If Congress refuses to appropriate funds for implementing a Supreme Court decision, that decision will not be enforced. Congress and state legislatures also have the power to amend the Constitution, which they can do to counter a court ruling.

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