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Judicial Activism

AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Judicial Activism is the philosophy that justices should use their position to promote desirable social outcomes from their rulings. To this end courts that are defined as activist courts will have a large docket.

The Warren Court is perhaps one of the most activist courts in modern political history, handing down many landmark judgements including: an end to segregation in schools, rights to legal counsel, right to marital privacy, and the protection of legal rights.

The term Judicial Activism originates with historian and theorist Arthur Schlesinger in 1947, and since then it has caught on in the political psyche and is used widely across the United States. However, the concept of judicial activism has existed for much longer than the term. Thomas Jefferson certainly appeared to believe that judicial activism was in existence when he referred to the behaviour Chief Justice John Marshall as ‘despotic’.

The term judicial activism is now more of a criticism of the court that handed down the rulings. It is often spoken of when a person or group doesn’t particularly like a ruling that a court has handed down. For example anti abortion groups would cry of judicial activism in the Supreme Court case Roe v Wade 1973.

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