Reconceptualizing the Judicial Activism Debate as Judicial Responsibility: A Tale of Two Justice Kennedys

46 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2009 Last revised: 14 Oct 2009

See all articles by Eric Segall

Eric Segall

Georgia State University College of Law

Date Written: September 25, 2009


The academic and political debate over judicial activism has been based on the overriding but patently false assumption that the Supreme Court’s performance can be measured by examining the results that it reaches in constitutional cases. When scholars and politicians equate judicial activism with judicial invalidation of the works of the political branches or the reversal of precedent, however, these commentators don’t reveal anything different than would a pure descriptive account of the Court’s decision and rationale. Moreover, the judicial activism debate is unhelpful because the ambiguous sources of constitutional interpretation cannot privilege fundamental baselines or generate consensus over correct or incorrect outcomes. Instead of arguing over how “activist” the Court acts, I suggest that we should instead focus on how transparently the Court writes its opinions and how honestly it deals with other positive law materials. To demonstrate that point, the article discusses a number of decisions where the Court’s opinions threatened rule of law principles and violated minimum standards of judicial responsibility. I also use the jurisprudence of Justice Kennedy to distinguish between proper and improper Supreme Court opinions, and argue that focusing on how well the Court treats the past and the record in the case before it is more valuable in evaluating the Court than the endless back and forth of the judicial activism debate.

Keywords: constitutional law, judicial activism, supreme court, Justice Kennedy, constitutional interpretation

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K40

Suggested Citation

Segall, Eric, Reconceptualizing the Judicial Activism Debate as Judicial Responsibility: A Tale of Two Justice Kennedys (September 25, 2009). Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 41, 2009, Georgia State University College of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-19, Available at SSRN:

Eric Segall (Contact Author)

Georgia State University College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 4037
Atlanta, GA 30302-4037
United States

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