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(Continued from “Wonderful Life,” Part III; see “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V) for all five parts combined and revised)

“Third,” the angel said, “let’s look at what your country and world would look like if you had not had an ‘activist’ judiciary interpreting the Constitution in ways relevant to, and adapting to, changing circumstances.” (See http://www.law.emory.edu/fileadmin/journals/elj/58/58.5/Green.pdf for a comprehensive exploration of the concept, including a discussion of why it, appropriately applied, has nothing to do with boosting individual liberty or governmental power, but rather refers to whether the judiciary adheres to the norms of judicial conduct which are its only real restraint.)

“In the conventional, ideologically charged use of the term, all Supreme Court decisions involve “judicial activism,” because those cases that the Supreme Court chooses to hear are precisely those cases that involve unresolved ambiguities, and require judicial interpretation. Therefore, a complete history of the evolution of Constitutional law, as defined by Supreme Court decisions, is, in a sense, one important slice of the history of ‘judicial activism,’ as the term is commonly used. And without that fully institutionalized form of ‘judicial activism,’ which is coextensive with the doctrine of ‘judicial review’ established by Justice Marshall described below, there would be no effective Constitution, and no established and coherent rule of law to the extent that there is today in the United States. But rather than write a Constitutional Law synopsis, I’ll just mention a few of the most important cases, that involved perhaps the greatest liberty of Constitutional interpretation on the Court’s part, but without which we would be a nation with far weaker protections of individual liberties and rights than we have today.

“Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of ‘judicial review’ in Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the first and greatest act of judicial activism in U.S. History, without which there would have been no final authority on what was and was not Constitutional, which would have inevitably undermined the rule of law that, more than anything else, has distinguished the United States. Without the judicially determined Constitutional last word that Marshall successfully instituted, questions of Constitutionality, and thus ultimate legality, would be mere political footballs, overwhelmed by the bickering whims of conflicting ideologies and interests that characterize the rest of political discourse and decision-making. In other words, without this bold initial act of judicial activism, the Constitution would have been an empty promise, and would be referenced today for strictly rhetorical rather than legal support, a non-binding tool for political argumentation. Uninformed lay opinions about what does and does not constitute Constitutionality would be raised to a par with legal analyses and Supreme Court holdings, reducing the Constitution to a meaningless blank slate on which each interest group and ideological camp could impress its own preferred interpretation.

“In Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), the Supreme Court held that a facially neutral law that has the effect of discriminating (a selectively enforced San Francisco code restricting licensing for laundries to brick or stone buildings in order to target Chinese laundries which were built of wood) violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This decision was not a foregone conclusion: The letter of the law itself didn’t violate the Equal Protection clause, and so the decision can be said to be one of ‘an activist judiciary.’ But had it been more literal in its Constitutional interpretation, the Court would have set the precedent that discrimination is Constitutionally permissible as long as it is done implicitly rather than explicitly.

“In Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922), the Supreme Court held that a government regulation that essentially deprives a property owner of the value of its property is an unconstitutional “taking” (violating the Fifth Amendment protection of property), and the government must compensate the owner for that loss of value. Again, this is not an automatic “strict constructionist” interpretation of the Constitution, since there is no language in the Constitution which addresses loss of value due to government regulation. However, those most adamant about the ills of ‘judicial activism’ are generally also those most likely to concur with this holding. In the absence of the judicial activism of the Court in this case, private property rights would have been more, rather than less, vulnerable to government intrusion.

“Brown v. Board of Education (1954) would certainly rate as an act of judicial activism by the ideological definition of that term popular today. It overturned the Stare Decisis of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which held that segregation was Constitutional (instituting the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine), holding that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ Brown essentially launched the Civil Rights Movement as we know it today (it gave it its first major victory), a movement whose progress would have been at least slower, and possibly undermined altogether, in the absence of this Court decision.

“The Court also declined to limit Congress’ power to pass The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which used the Commerce Clause to prohibit private owners of commercial establishments from discriminating against potential customers, employees, renters, and buyers on the basis of race. This could easily be considered ‘judicial activism by omission,’ without which we would not have Civil Rights laws protecting minorities against the entire range of private discrimination, such as employment discrimination and housing discrimination.

“In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court established that the state’s failure to provide counsel to an indigent defendant essentially deprived that defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The literal Constitutional right to counsel is not necessarily a right to be provided with counsel, but without interpreting it as such, this fundamental right would be accorded only to those who could afford it, and denied to those who cannot, reducing an essential protection of individual liberty to a commodity for sale rather than a guarantee to all citizens. In a world without this protection, the poor would receive even less justice than they do today.

“It’s worth noting here, again, that a series of Supreme Court decisions over the last century and a half have incorporated the Bill of Rights into the 14th Amendment Equal Protection clause, allowing those core protections to be applied to state and local governments as well as to the federal government, an act of ‘judicial activism’ without which states and counties and municipalities and school districts would be largely free to violate the Bill of Rights to whatever extent and in whatever ways they see fit. Hardly a boon to the protection individual liberty.

“Many other decisions could be included in this list, many other basic liberties that depended on an ‘activist judiciary.’ But the sampling above illustrates some of the ways in which our nation would be a very different, and in many ways far poorer place were it not for the role that the so-called ‘activist judiciary’ has played in our march toward increased equality of opportunity and rights, and increased protection of individual liberties.”

(Continued in “Wonderful Life,” Part V)

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