Restrained Judicial Activism

In contemporary legal discussion, “judicial activism” is roundly condemned.  This behavior refers generally to any instance in which a court’s opinion is the product of the court following its personal policy preferences instead of the commands of the law.

The favored behavior is “judicial restraint,” which is usually defined by the values of “originalism” (deference to the original intent of the lawgivers), “textualism” (respect for the language of laws), “self-restraint” (respect for precedent) , and “separation of powers” (deference to the prerogatives of democratically elected legislative bodies and/or the States).

The foundations of “judicial restraint” are originalism and textualism.  “Self-restraint” and “separation of powers” are secondary values. Precedent and legislative enactments are binding and commendable only when they are consistent with the original intent and text of higher law, which is not always the case. 

The words of any law (statute or a decision) are the best evidence of its meaning because it is presumed that the law’s Framers picked those words to efficiently describe what they intended the law to require or prohibit.  (For the sake of convenience I use “Framers” to refer to courts rendering a decision or legislative bodies drafting a statute.)  “Textualism” demands respect for the clear meaning of these words.  Unless there is some unavoidable flaw or ambiguity in the drafting which makes the intent of the Framers incomplete, incoherent, or ambiguous, courts should treat laws as meaning what they say they mean.

Textualism has its limitations. 

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More Thoughts on Marriage

Sean Samis has posted a lengthy response to my post expressing “different” thoughts on the Iowa decision on same-sex marriage. I thank him for his response and, while I think he has got it wrong, he’d get a great grade for his efforts in my Law & Theology seminar or Wisconsin Supreme Court class and so he deserves a response. Given the length of the remarks that I am about to make, I once again thought it better to post separately.

I have come to believe that the underlying presumptions of proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage are almost ontological in their differences about the nature of the law and the way in which it shapes and is shaped by society. We are all hard-wired now days to think of constitutional law as, largely, the mediation between the “rights” of individuals and the “demands” of the state. The former are seen as radically subjective, while the latter are the sum of their legal incidents. The former are not to be judged, and the latter are often examined for their “fit” without regard for their interaction with extralegal norms and institutions.

We also are steeped in an almost eschatological view of the law in which we see the claims of some new “discrete and insular minority” as analogous to those advanced during the civil rights movement and somehow validated by an Hegelian move toward “equality” and progressivism.

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Some Different Thoughts on the Iowa Supreme Court Marriage Decision

I wanted to respond to Mr. Samis’s thoughtful post on the Iowa marriage case and thought it’d be easier to do so by a separate post than by a comment. It is hard to engage such a complicated and emotionally charged question within the confines of a blog. Although I have generally found both my allies and opponents on the question to be gracious and respectful, I am also aware that this is an issue that can degenerate into dueling allegations of bad faith — of, from one side, accusations of “hate” and “prejudice” and, from the other, charges of “licentiousness” and “irreligion.” I also know that to raise the conservative position in the academy is like launching an offensive deep behind enemy lines. You may soon find yourself surrounded.

But I am finishing (with Daniel Suhr ’08) a paper on interpretation of marriage amendments using Wisconsin as a case study, so the topic is much on my mind.

First, a disclosure. I was a public proponent of Wisconsin’s marriage amendment and based my case on wholly secular grounds without reference to the morality of same-sex relationships. While I appreciate that my church believes such relationships to be morally impermissible, I am not persuaded by that judgment.

Nor do I disagree with Mr. Samis that gay and lesbian relationships, just as heterosexual unions, may — hopefully, will — exhibit the loving and supportive characteristics that he observed between his friends. I have observed the same in my own circles.

But where proponents and opponents of genderless marriage part ways is on the question of whether this resolves the matter. The latter focus not on merely on what may be similar about same-sex and opposite-sex intimacy, but also on what is distinctive.

Continue ReadingSome Different Thoughts on the Iowa Supreme Court Marriage Decision