In my last post, I offered a new definition of judicial activism as applied to federal appellate judges. In this post, I will discuss some of the existing research on the subject.
The existing empirical scholarship is largely focused on two things: activism by the U.S. Supreme Court and judicial review of the other federal branches. While there is a lot of interesting work within those studies, I think the focus on Supreme Court review of other branches offers an extremely narrow view of judicial activism.
The Supreme Court is an unusual body in American courts. It is not subject to any higher review. The Justices are largely free to decide a case however they feel. As a result of the unrestrained nature of the Court, “activism” is a hard concept to measure. There is difficulty in finding a baseline against which to measure the Justices. A Justice who is an outlier on one Court might have regularly been in the majority during a different era. The problem of measuring activism is compounded by the Court’s very small docket. Because there are so few cases, the sample sizes are not large. Further, because the docket is self-selected, the cases are not random and are concentrated in just a few areas of law.