Thursday, May 13, 2010

Please somebody ban the phrase "judicial activism"

Nothing bores me quite like a Supreme Court nomination. The opposition party questions the nominee's credentials. The credentials come out to be impeccable. Pro-lifers or pro-choicers wave their arms around. After some formalities, the nominee eventually gets confirmed. *YAWN*

That said, there is a phrase that gets me to no end in these debates, and that's "judicial activism."

Opponents of activism typically say something like "it's the judge's job to interpret the law, not to make the law." Conservatives accuse liberal justices of "legislating from the bench." Liberals counter with statistics showing that actually, conservative justices overturn more laws.

The truth is, "judicial activism" is one of those topics where everyone is wrong (except me), because the phrase itself is a meaningless term. The idea that there is a single, True meaning of a law has no basis in reality, because ultimately, the meaning of any text is up to some human's interpretation. How do you interpret a law's meaning without making some kind of value judgment? What is the "true" meaning of a term like "cruel and unusual punishment"? Answer: it's up to someone's interpretation.

Simply put, there is no logical way to claim that one judge is more activist than another, because any time you interpret something, you are committing an interpretive act. The phrase "judicial activism" is a tautology, and I could follow judicial nominations happily if it were dropped from political discourse.

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