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The phrase has been controversial since its beginning. An article by Craig Green, "An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism," is critical of Schlesinger's use of the term; "Schlesinger's original introduction of judicial activism was doubly blurred: not only did he fail to explain what counts as activism, he also declined to say whether activism is good or bad."
Even before this phrase was first used, the general concept already existed. For example, Thomas Jefferson referred to the "despotic behaviour" of Federalist federal judges, in particular Chief Justice John Marshall.
A survey of judicial review in practice during the last three decades shows that 'Judicial Activism' has characterised the decisions of the Supreme Court at different times.
Black's Law Dictionary defines judicial activism as a "philosophy of judicial decision-making whereby judges allow their personal views about public policy, among other factors, to guide their decisions."
Political science professor Bradley Canon has posited six dimensions along which judge courts may be perceived as activist: majoritarianism, interpretive stability, interpretive fidelity, substance/democratic process, specificity of policy, and availability of an alternate policymaker. David A. Strauss has argued that judicial activism can be narrowly defined as one or more of three possible actions: overturning laws as unconstitutional, overturning judicial precedent, and ruling against a preferred interpretation of the constitution.
Detractors of judicial activism charge that it usurps the power of the elected branches of government or appointed agencies, damaging the rule of law and democracy. Defenders of judicial activism say that in many cases it is a legitimate form of judicial review, and that the interpretation of the law must change with changing times.
A third view is that so-called "objective" interpretation of the law does not exist. According to law professor Brian Z. Tamanaha, "Throughout the so-called formalist age, it turns out, many prominent judges and jurists acknowledged that there were gaps and uncertainties in the law and that judges must sometimes make choices." Under this view, any judge's use of judicial discretion will necessarily be shaped by that judge's personal and professional experience and his or her views on a wide range of matters, from legal and juridical philosophy to morals and ethics. This implies a tension between granting flexibility (to enable the dispensing of justice) and placing bounds on that flexibility (to hold judges to ruling from legal grounds rather than extralegal ones).
Some proponents of a stronger judiciary argue that the judiciary helps provide checks and balances and should grant itself an expanded role to counterbalance the effects of transient majoritarianism, i.e., there should be an increase in the powers of a branch of government which is not directly subject to the electorate, so that the majority cannot dominate or oppress any particular minority through its elective powers. Other scholars have proposed that judicial activism is most appropriate when it restrains the tendency of democratic majorities to act out of passion and prejudice rather than after reasoned deliberation.
Moreover, they argue that the judiciary strikes down both elected and unelected official action, in some instances acts of legislative bodies reflecting the view the transient majority may have had at the moment of passage and not necessarily the view the same legislative body may have at the time the legislation is struck down. Also, the judges that are appointed are usually appointed by previously elected executive officials so that their philosophy should reflect that of those who nominated them, that an independent judiciary is a great asset to civil society since special interests are unable to dictate their version of constitutional interpretation with threat of stopping political donations.
India's judges have sweeping powers and a long history of judicial activism that would be all but unimaginable in the United States. In recent years, judges required Delhi's auto-rickshaws to convert to natural gas to help cut down on pollution, closed much of the country's iron-ore-mining industry to cut down on corruption and ruled that politicians facing criminal charges could not seek re-election.
Indeed, India's Supreme Court and Parliament have openly battled for decades, with Parliament passing multiple constitutional amendments to respond to various Supreme Court rulings.
All such rulings carry the force of Article 39A of the Constitution of India, although before and during the Emergency the judiciary desisted from "wide and elastic" interpretations, termed Austinian, because Directive Principles of State Policy are non-justiciable. This despite the constitutional provisions for judicial review and B R Ambedkar arguing in the Constituent Assembly Debates that "judicial review, particularly writ jurisdiction, could provide quick relief against abridgment of Fundamental Rights and ought to be at the heart of the Constitution."
Recent examples quoted include the order to Delhi Government to convert the Auto rickshaw to CNG, a move believed to have reduced Delhi's erstwhile acute smog problem (it is now argued to be back) and contrasted with Beijing's.
The Israeli approach to judicial activism has transformed significantly in the last three decades, and currently[when?] presents an especially broad version of robust judicial review and intervention. Additionally, taking into consideration the intensity of public life in Israel and the challenges that the country faces (including security threats), the case law of the Israeli Supreme Court touches on diverse and controversial public matters.
^Kmiec, Keenan D. (2004). "The Origin and Current Meanings of 'Judicial Activism'". Cal. L. Rev. 92: 1441, 1447. Schlesinger's article profiled all nine Supreme Court justices on the Court at that time and explained the alliances and divisions among them. The article characterized Justices Black, Douglas, Murphy, and Rutledge as the 'Judicial Activists' and Justices Frankfurter, Jackson, and Burton as the 'Champions of Self Restraint.' Justice Reed and Chief Justice Vinson comprised a middle group.