Restraining Judicial Restraint

I agree with George that judicial restraint in and of itself does not provide a standard for judging. It may be worth separating two questions: the scope of judicial authority on the one hand and how it should be used on the other. Left wholly to itself, judicial restraint would be agnostic as to how cases should be decided. It would only care whether they should be decided. In other words, one could be an originalist or a living constitutionalist and still believe judges should be restrained. That is inextricable from a belief that constitutional questions are not the exclusive property of judges.

I do not think wholesale agnosticism as to constitutional interpretation is very many people’s idea of judicial restraint. It is not mine, and to the best of my knowledge, it is not Adam White’s. Judicial restraint has to be linked to an approach to constitutional interpretation. Both authority and substance matter, just as a president can (and should) have a view on both a point of policy and his or her authority to impose it. Happily for the restrained originalist, the extent and use of judicial authority coincide, since judicial restraint has an authoritative originalist grounding.

Judicial restraint also has a normative basis: the primacy of republican self-government. For this reason, I tend toward Thayer’s rule of the clear mistake, which many recent originalists have unfairly maligned. The advocate of judicial restraint simply says that judges should be highly reluctant to overturn the will of republican majorities because the rule of republican majorities is both a positive good and the foundation of our system of government. The originalist advocate of restraint, in turn, says a clear mistake in a constitutional case is a clear violation of the original intent of the Constitution.

George alludes to Roe as a disputed case of judicial restraint. At least, I believe this is the 50-year-old precedent to which he refers. To me, overturning Roe restores deference to republican majorities. In other words, the question of deference is not simply the Court’s deference to itself. By contrast, judges whose view of their own authority is rooted in the primacy of self-government may have a particular authority to intervene in the case of voting laws whose explicit purpose or effect is to undermine self-government.

George is certainly correct that judicial restraint is inexact. Restraint requires both a disposition toward the use of power in general and an idea of how that power is to be used when it is appropriately in play. Prudence is inescapable in judging as it is in elected office.

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