by Zachary Rogers
February 12, 2019
FRC has consistently maintained that the Supreme Court needs to bring legal precedent more in line with the Constitution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. But if this effort is taken up in earnest by a newly conservative Court, it is likely to be tarred as “judicial activism.” Judicial activism occurs when a judge applies his views rather than a faithful interpretation of the law to the case before him. What is needed, and what we look forward to seeing with the appointment of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and many more lower court judges, is judges’ faithful interpretation of the Constitution and the laws to the cases before them.
However, many on the Left think that overturning any of the bad precedent churned out by the Supreme Court is partisan judicial activism. It is not. To understand this, we must comprehend the structure the Framers crafted, the role of judicial review within it, and the place of the other branches within this system.
The Framers carefully crafted a system of ordered liberty, which entrusted certain enumerated powers to the national government and reserved the rest to the people and the states. The improved science of politics included checks and balances, separation of powers, and elected representatives.
They did this because the legislature and executive branch “could be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.” In essence, Congress would promulgate laws, the president would execute them, and the Supreme Court would adjudicate the relevant laws in individual cases.
The Framers created a system of checks and balances in which ambition would be made to counteract ambition. Each branch was expected to protect its prerogatives and powers, thus enforcing separation of powers and preventing tyranny—the accumulation of legislative, executive, and judicial power. This system of limited government and ordered liberty under the Constitution has shifted since 1787.
The Constitution is the highest law of the land because it is the settled and deliberate will of the people against which congressional laws, executive actions, and Supreme Court decisions must be measured. Traditionally, all three of the branches were expected to be faithful to the Constitution in the execution of their duties.
The Progressive Era, however, caused the modern American regime to shift dangerously to the left. The president is no longer expected merely to execute the laws passed by Congress but to nudge the American people in a partisan direction. Congress spends little time passing laws; instead, it occupies most of its time overseeing executive agencies while delegating lawmaking to executive agencies. The Supreme Court perceives itself the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution—which could be defined in accord with the intent of the Framers or according to the “living” Constitution desired by the liberals.
The rise of the modern court occurred for two reasons. First, the theory of the living Constitution requires the document to be interpreted in accord with the spirit of the times. This requires it to have no fixed meaning, subject to varying interpretation, and acting as a vehicle of “progress” to move the American people forward. Second, modern liberals were able to use the courts to achieve social and political change. They were forced to do so because they were unable to achieve decisive victory at the ballot box, which would have allowed them to implement their desired laws and policy objectives.
One of the reasons Supreme Court practice has strayed from the Founder’s intentions is an erroneous understanding of Marbury v. Madison (1803). The modern understanding of this case is that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and all officials must comply with it. In fact, the Court ruled that when a law conflicts with the Constitution it is the Constitution that is paramount.
Judicial review is simply the authority to declare acts void when they conflict with the Constitution. A strict fidelity to the original meaning of the Constitution limits judges’ power. If a law violates the Constitution of the Framers, then it must be declared void.
Therefore, Supreme Court decisions are not the last word and may in fact be revisited in order to uphold a proper constitutional construction. In this partisan atmosphere, Christians and conservatives should expect charges of judicial activism in an effort to tar genuine efforts to return to constitutional law. A true recognition of judicial activism lets the American people distinguish between a rejection, distortion, or return to the Constitution.
Zachary Rogers is a Government Affairs intern at Family Research Council.