Judicial activism and judicial restraint are two opposing philosophies when it comes to the Supreme Court justices’ interpretations of the United States Constitution; justices appointed by the President to the Supreme Court serve for life,and thus whose decisions shape the lives of “We the people” for a long time to come.
Marbury v. Madison, one of the first Supreme Court cases asserting the power of judicial review, is an effective argument for this power; however, it lacks direct textual basis for the decision. John Marshall managed to get away with this deficiency because of the silence on many issues and the vague wording of the Constitution. Marshall was also the first to interpret the Constitution loosely, also known as judicial activism.
During his term as Supreme Court Chief Justice, Marshall was also successful in loose constructionism through other landmark Supreme Court cases such as Gibbons v. Ogden (“Emancipation Proclamation” of commerce), and McCulloch v. Maryland (whose decision stated that the states cannot tax a federal bank). These landmark decisions were the basis and the precedent for future Supreme Court cases, and had also provided a means through which the Supreme Court can question the law and even possibly change different facets of life affecting the present and future of “We the people.”
Liberals and Democrats tend to favor judicial activism as it opens new doors to interpretation and experimentation. However, those that favor judicial restraint on the other hand, and thus favor the status quo and the strict construction of the Constitution are conservatives and Republicans.
Two landmark Supreme Court decisions that strictly interpreted the Constitution for its literal meaning were Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans did not have the right to sue for their freedom, since they were seen strictly by the law as property and not even citizens of the United States. As well, in Plessy v. Ferguson the Court ruled that segregation of public schools was not unconstitutional, even though African Americans were still seen as equal citizens due to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (“separate but equal”).
However, this particular case was then overturned by Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas in 1954. The Brown decision, unlike that of Plessy v. Fergusion and Dred Scott v. Sanford expressed judicial activism and ruled racial segregation unconstitutional.
Many will protest that the people do not elect the Supreme Court Justices and therefore the Supreme Court should not have the power of judicial activism and change the law of the land.
However, as one critic points out, “No institution in a democratic society could become and remain potent unless it could count on a solid block of public opinion that would rally to it’s side in a pinch.” However, anticipating the nominees to the Supreme Court most likely to be forwarded to the US Senate for confirmation by President George Walker Bush, since Bush is a conservative, he is most likely to favor the philosophy of judicial restraint. Clearly, the Supreme Court is ultimately responsible to the will of the people, and the future ramifications of said choices may indeed lean toward judicial restraint more often than judicial activism, thus favoring the status quo and earlier precedents set by previous Supreme Court decisions. By maintaining independence from politics, the Justices avoid the major problems of political parties and party platforms. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s small size allows the Constitution to speak with a unified voice throughout the country.