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Judicial Activism

Judicial activism occurs when judges write subjective policy preferences into the law rather than apply the law impartially according to its original meaning. As such, activism does not mean the mere act of striking down a law.

Baker v. Carr

Summary

In a 6-2 opinion delivered by Justice William J. Brennan, the majority ruled that the Supreme Court has authority to review and alter state legislatures’ attempts to reapportion voting districts.  The Court dismissed the argument that the reapportionment of legislative districts is a “political question” (and thus left to the accountable political branches, and not to judicial process).

Analysis

The Baker Court engages in judicial imperialism, establishing the reasoning that would lead to the judicial usurpation and management of virtually all features of the political questions arising in redistricting. From the time of Marbury v. Madison, the Court has recognized that “Questions, in their nature political . . . can never be made in this court.”  Despite the fact that the function of redistricting was clearly delegated to the political branches and had historically been recognized as beyond the province of the judiciary, the Court found that it was within its authority to decide the matter for the other branches.  In so doing, Baker enumerated six factors it would consider in weighing the justiciability of political questions—a test which in application has been criticized as greatly weakening the political question doctrine.

Case Basics

date03/26/1962

Court & Reporter NumberSupreme Court, 369 U.S. 186

Type(s) of Activism
  • Judicial Imperialism
Area(s) of law
  • Election Law
Opinion(s)
Majority
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William J. Brennan
  • Tom C Clark
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Potter Stewart
  • Earl Warren
Concurrence
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Tom C Clark
  • Potter Stewart
Dissent
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • John Marshall Harlan II