Purely Hypothetical Dragons

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. …  The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way.*

Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad

Much of the Conservative government’s legislative programme seems driven by fear and distrust of judges. Such reactions to judicial decisions are often justified by concern about “judicial activism.” But judicial activism is something like the dragon of constitutional theory. It doesn’t exist, although its distinct kinds nonexist in entirely different ways. Or so I am tempted to conclude after reading an exchange at the Volokh Conspiracy (which, by the way, is 10 years old today) between prof. Orin Kerr and prof. Randy Barnett.

Prof. Kerr argues that the expression “judicial activism” can have a variety of meanings, some of them more interesting than others. A decision can be described as activist if 1) it rests on the judges’ personal (including political) views; 2) it expands the power of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other branches of government; 3) it departs from settled precedent; 4) it strikes down a statute or an administrative decision; or 5) it is wrong. Prof. Kerr believes that the meanings 1) to 3) are useful because “the terms allow us to have a useful debate about the proper role of the courts.” On the other hand, 4) and 5) are to be avoided; the former, because everyone (in the US, but I suppose this is mostly true for Canada too) agrees with (some) judicial review, the latter, because we don’t agree about what decisions are right.

Prof. Barnett responds by arguing that given its multiplicity of meanings, useful or otherwise, the term “judicial activism” is best avoided – but not without venturing yet another meaning for it, applying it to describe any decision which contradicts clear constitutional text.

(I have given the bare bones of both posts, which are very interesting, especially if you are conversant with or curious about US constitutional debates.)

It seems to me that prof. Barnett is right that we ought to avoid using the term “judicial activism” if at all possible, since it can mean so many things to different people. Prof. Kerr’s categories of judicial activism are very interesting, and no doubt capture much of what people mean when they use the term, but why use the vague, and vaguely pejorative, “judicial activism,” even in one of the useful meanings prof. Kerr identifies, when we can say more precisely what we mean? Judicial activism does not really exist, but we should keep in mind that it does not really exist in a number of different ways.

* As I recall it, in the Russian translation of the Cyberiad which I read, the three distinct kinds of dragon were said to be the nil, the negative, and the imaginary. If anyone knows what the Polish original was, I would love to hear about it.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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