Preferential Judicial Activism
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE
PREFERENTIAL JUDICIAL ACTIVISM
The term “judicial activism”1 has come under fire in the last two decades-primarily by politically conservative commentators who decry the methodological legitimacy of judges relying on policy preferences and contemporary societal norms, in addition to precedent and the history and text of the Constitution, to inform their opinions.2 Chief Justice Roberts emphasized this perspective in his 2005 confirmation hearings, when he described the limited role of a judge as one who should “call balls and strikes, and not pitch or bat.”3 * Associate Dean for Faculty Development & Intellectual Life and Professor of Law, Western New England University School of Law. I thank Matthew H. Charity for his thoughtful suggestions on this Essay, and Anthony Farley for the invitation to participate in this symposium. 1 Many commentators credit the first use of this term to a 1947 magazine article, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Supreme Court: 1947, FORTUNE, Jan. 1947, at 202, 208, but the debate over the role of judges in making law is centuries old. See THE FEDERALIST No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton) (opining that the judiciary played an important role in lawmaking to the extent necessary to safeguard individual rights); see generally Paul Carrese, THE CLOAKING OF POWER: MONTESQUIEU, BLACKSTONE, AND THE RISE OF JUDICIAL ACTIVISM (2003) (questioning the political origins and scope of judicial lawmaking). 2 See Keenan D. Kmiec, The Origins and Current Meanings of 'Judicial Activism,” 92 CALIF. L. REV. 1441, 1442 (2004) (highlighting commentary from Judge Frank Easterbrook lamenting that “everyone scorns judicial activism”); see also Bob Ward, In Snowmass, Justice Antonin Scalia says judges should not be policymakers, ASPEN TIMES, July 21, 2013, available at http://www.aspentimes.com/news/7382102-113/scalia-judges-society-court (noting that Justice Scalia used the “twin terrors of Nazi Germany and radical Islam to warn...about the dangers of judicial activism”). 3 Todd S. Purdum & Robin Toner, Senators to Question First Supreme Court Nominee in 11 Years, N.Y. TIMES, Sept. 13, 2005, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/13/politics/politicsspecial1/13confirm.html. 4 See, e.g., Geoffrey R. Stone, Selective Judicial Activism, 89 TEX. L. REV. 1423 (2012) (labeling a number of decisions by the Roberts Court as “unmistakably activist,” including McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 3020, 3050 (2010) (holding that the Second Amendment is applicable to the states), Dist. of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 595, 635 (2008) (holding that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms), and Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701, 747-78 (2007) (holding that a race-conscious school
Nonetheless, the Court has decided several cases in recent years in
which the politically conservative judges on the Court have been labeled as
judicial activists;4 one of the most prominent of these is Shelby County v.
Holder.5 In this symposium essay, I juxtapose the Court’s activism in
Shelby—justified by the majority as necessary in light of the fundamental
rights at stake—with its rigid and overly formalistic6 refusal to allow the
litigation of national security-related cases in which ample evidence of the
government’s abuse of fundamental rights exists.7 Although the national
security cases are characterized by the judicial refusal to engage, and Shelby,
to the contrary, is an example of an overaggressive judiciary, both share a
problematic end result: enabling the undermining of the rights of vulnerable
populations.8 I conclude that the Court is engaging in “preferential judicial
activism,” whereby justices decide whether to formalistically dismiss cases
before they even get to the stage of “calling balls and strikes” or, instead,
engage in judicial activism based on their policy preferences.
1. Judicial Activism in Shelby
The majority in Shelby characterized the Court’s review of the Voting
Rights Act of 2006 (“VRA”) as necessary given the fundamental rights at
stake and the unusually broad reach of the VRA in mandating federal
jurisdiction over voting matters.9 The Court acknowledged the substantial
placement program was unconstitutional)); Geoffrey R. Stone, Citizens United and Conservative
Judicial Activism, 2012 U. ILL. L. REV. 485 (2012) (describing the invalidation of part of the
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558
U.S. 310 (2010) as “conservative judicial activism”); Bryan Adamson, Ricci v. DeStefano:
Procedural Activism?, 24 NAT’L BLACK L.J. (2011) (framing the Supreme Court decision
overturning local decision-making regarding firefighter hiring in Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557
(2009) as procedural judicial activism).
5 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013).
6 Judicial formalism can be conceived in numerous ways, but I have used it elsewhere and here to
describe a judicial methodology that gives primacy to narrow rule-following rather than viewing
the judicial role as acting when necessary to preserve individual rights. See Sudha Setty,
Judicial Formalism and the State Secrets Privilege, 38 WM. MITCHELL L. REV. 1629 (2012). See
also Richard H. Pildes, Forms of Formalism, 66 U. CHI. L. REV. 607, 612–16 (1999) (describing
one form of formalism as “a purposive rule-following”). Other commentators have described the
constraints of judicial formalism as “a commitment to, and therefore also a belief in the
possibility of, a method of legal justification that can be clearly contrasted to open-ended disputes
about the basic terms of social life, disputes that people call ideological, philosophical, or
visionary.” Roberto M. Unger, The Critical Legal Studies Movement, 96 HARV. L. REV. 563, 564
(1983). On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia has supported use of a formal approach to
maximize stability and credibility in the Supreme Court’s decision making, opining that a
“discretion-conferring approach is ill suited . . . to a legal system in which the supreme court can
review only an insignificant proportion of the decided cases.” See Antonin Scalia, The Rule of
Law as a Law of Rules, 56 U. CHI. L. REV. 1175, 1178 (1989).
7 See Aziz Z. Huq, Against National Security Exceptionalism, 2009 SUP. CT. REV. 225 (2009)
(arguing that the Supreme Court’s national security cases should be analyzed and understood in
the larger context of its public law jurisprudence).
8 Cf. Stone, supra note 4, at 1429 (arguing that there is no principled basis to undergird the
activism of the conservative justices on the Court).
9 Shelby Cnty., 133 S.Ct. at 2618 (acknowledging the historical need for the “extraordinary
measures” employed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but noting that “[t]here is no
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE, GENDER & ETHNICITY & BERKELEY JOURNAL OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN LAW & POLICY
evidence compiled by Congress in support of VRA renewal,10 the
overwhelming congressional vote reauthorizing the VRA11 and the
longstanding tradition of the Court engaging in constitutional avoidance
wherever possible12 –all well-established grounds for deferring to Congress
altogether. Yet the majority opined that it had little choice but to apply a
high degree of scrutiny to the VRA,13 minimizing the objections of the
dissenting justices and claiming the necessity of review given Congress’s
purported failure to address the constitutional questions previously raised by
The dissent in Shelby, on the other hand, focused on the obligation of the
court to defer to Congress15 and the lack of “usual restraint” that the Court
exhibited in taking the case and then gutting the power of the VRA16 to
combat the ongoing and serious problems of voter discrimination that both
opinions acknowledge.17 In framing its objections in this manner, the dissent
essentially accuses the majority of preferential judicial activism—taking on
Shelby for the purpose of promoting its own preferences.18
2. Judicial Formalism in the National Security Context
By contrast, the judiciary’s stance in national security-related cases in
which plaintiffs allege violations of fundamental rights has been
characterized by a rigid, formalistic refusal to allow plaintiffs access to
denying...that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting
in the covered jurisdictions”).
10 Id. at 2629 (acknowledging that Congress “compiled thousands of pages of evidence before
reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act”).
11 Id. at 2621.
13 Id. at 2622 (citing the need to follow up on the Court’s previous evaluation of the VRA in
Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009)).
14 Id. at 2631 (opining that “Congress could have updated the coverage formula...but did not do so.
Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice”). In couching the lack of change to the coverage
formula under Section 5 of the VRA as a congressional failure, the Court fully ignored the political
realities hamstringing a politically divided Congress. See Richard L. Hasen, End of the Dialogue?
Political Polarization, the Supreme Court and Congress, 86 S. CAL. L. REV. 205 (2013) (arguing
that a politically polarized Congress cannot effectively provide a corrective check on Supreme
Court decisions that overreach).
15 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2635-38 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
16 Id. at 2644.
17 Id. at 2633.
18 See Richard Hasen, The Curious Disappearance of Boerne and the Future Jurisprudence of
Voting Rights and Race, SCOTUSBLOG, (Jun. 25, 2013),
(highlighting the extraordinary and irregular steps that the majority goes through to justify its
courts, usually based on the acceptance of government invocations of
procedural barriers to litigation. Although the judiciary has historically
deferred to executive branch decision making with regard to foreign policy
and national security matters,19 that deference has expanded significantly
and concretized recently. Such judicial formalism has consistently led to the
dismissal of cases alleging serious government abuse in the post-September
Government invocations of procedural hurdles have led to dismissals
in a number of contexts. Detainees alleging mistreatment and abuse while in
detention facilities within the United States have been largely unable to
bring suit against government actors, based on the Supreme Court’s
imposition of strict pleading standards20 that constitute an almost
insurmountable hurdle for plaintiffs without the benefit of non-public
information.21 The Supreme Court also denied certiorari in numerous cases
dealing with well-supported allegations of extraordinary rendition and
torture,22 even where dissenting opinions from lower courts23 and detailed
19 See, e.g., Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 796-98 (noting that although “proper deference
must be accorded to the political branches,” (citing United States v. Curtiss–Wright Export Corp.,
299 U.S. 304, 320, 57 S. Ct. 216, 81 L.Ed. 255 (1936)) but reasoning nonetheless that the grant of
habeas corpus rights to detainees at Guantanamo “does not undermine the Executive’s powers as
Commander in Chief. On the contrary, the exercise of those powers is vindicated, not eroded,
when confirmed by the Judicial Branch”); Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557, 636 (Breyer, J.,
concurring) (noting that “judicial insistence upon that consultation does not weaken our Nation’s
ability to deal with danger. To the contrary, that insistence strengthens the Nation’s ability to
determine—through democratic means—how best to do so”).
20 See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) (holding that government officials were not liable for
abuses committed by their subordinates absent evidence at the pleadings stage that they ordered
the allegedly discriminatory activity).
21 See Adam Steinman, The Pleading Problem, 62 STAN. L. REV. 1293 (2010) (arguing that the
heightened pleading standard established in Iqbal creates severe obstacles for the litigation of
legitimate allegations of abuse).
22 See, e.g., Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., 614 F.3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2010) (en banc), cert.
denied, 131 S. Ct. 2442 (2011) (upholding the dismissal of a suit alleging extraordinary rendition
and torture based on the government invocation of the state secrets privilege); Arar v. Ashcroft,
585 F.3d 559 (2d Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 130 S. Ct. 3409 (2010) (dismissing suit seeking damages
for extraordinary rendition and torture upon a finding that constitutional and international law
obligations did not apply and that special factors counseled hesitation in the absence of
congressional guidance); El-Masri v. Tenet, 437 F. Supp. 2d 530 (E.D. Va. 2006), aff'd, 479 F.3d
296 (4th Cir. 2007), and cert. denied, 552 U.S. 947 (2007) (dismissing suit seeking damages for
extraordinary rendition and torture upon upholding the government’s invocation of the state
secrets privilege). In many of these cases, a vocal dissent argued that the courts were succumbing
to the policy preferences of the administration and not engaging in the type of rule of law analysis
required given the allegations at issue.
23 Mohamed, 614 F.3d at 1095 n.5 (Hawkins, J., dissenting) (noting that former employees of the
defendant understood that their extraordinary rendition flights resulted in the torture of
detainees, but that the company continued to run the flights because they “paid very well”); Arar,
585 F.3d at 615, 618 (Sack, J., dissenting) (noting that the allegations of Arar’s mistreatment and
investigations in other nations found credible evidence that the alleged
abuses occurred and that the victims deserve compensation.24 Similarly, a
case where the plaintiff sought accountability for the targeted killing by the
U.S. government of a U.S. citizen living overseas was dismissed,25 despite
public admissions by the Obama administration that the killing occurred as
These examples of judicial formalism that enabled the dismissal of
cases at the pleading stage illustrate the judiciary’s internal struggle to
determine its appropriate role when confronted with questions of
constitutional rights during times of war or perceived emergency.27 This
dilemma has confronted courts in constitutional democracies around the
world,28 but many foreign courts, unlike those in the United States, have
torture was credible and detailed in a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of
the Inspector General).
24 See Setty, Judicial Formalism, supra note 6, at 1640 (citing Mohamed v. Sec’y of State for
Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs,  EWHC (Admin) 2048, - (Eng.)); see El-Masri v.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, App. No. 39630/09 (E.Ct.H.R. Dec. 13. 2012)
(awarding €60,000 to Khalid El-Masri based on Macedonia’s complicity with the CIA rendition
and torture of El-Masri); Patrick Wintour, Guantánamo Bay detainees to be paid compensation by
UK government, THE GUARDIAN, Nov. 15, 2010, available at
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/16/guantanamo-bay-compensation-claim (noting that
Binyam Mohamed would be paid one million pounds from the British government in
compensation for suffering extraordinary rendition and torture).
Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar, Report
of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, Analysis and Recommendations (2006) (concluding after a
detailed and lengthy inquiry that Arar had been subject to extraordinary rendition and torture as
25 Al-Aulaqi v. Obama, 727 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 2010) (dismissing suit seeking injunctive relief
for the listing of plaintiff’s son on the U.S. targeted killings list based on standing and political
26 President Barack Obama, Remarks of President Barack Obama, (May 23, 2013) available at
27 In Minimalism at War, Cass Sunstein analyzes three categories of judicial decision-making in
wartime: national security maximalism, in which courts defer broadly to executive branch claims
of Article II authority without weighing the cost in terms of constitutional liberty interests; liberty
maximalism, in which courts maintain a peacetime approach to the protection of constitutional
liberty interests; and minimalism, in which courts use constitutional avoidance theory, statutory
authority, and a narrow approach to creating precedent to weigh security and liberty interests.
See Cass R. Sunstein, Minimalism at War, 2004 SUP. CT. REV. 47, 50–52 (2004). Sunstein views
national security maximalism as inadequately accounting for fundamental liberty principles,
liberty maximalism as unrealistic and unwarranted given the need for greater government
intrusion into liberties during wartime, concluding that minimalism is the most appropriate
judicial approach during wartime. Id. I suggest that Mohamed and similar decisions should be
conceived of differently, reflecting a formal and narrow adherence to procedures and rules as a
means of enabling deference to executive secrecy claims and avoiding real engagement in the civil
liberties dilemma underlying the case.
28 See generally Aharon Barak, The Role of a Supreme Court in a Democracy, and the Fight
Against Terrorism, 58 U. MIAMI L. REV. 125, 125–26 (2003) (discussing the obligation of the Israeli
allowed such cases to continue and plaintiffs to have their grievances heard
in court.29 Yet in the United States, the ability of plaintiffs to seek
government accountability in the courts has been conspicuously absent.30
The judiciary’s consistent unwillingness to allow those abused by
counterterrorism policies to litigate their basic human and civil rights should
be read alongside Shelby’s preferential judicial activism that set the stage for
undermining protections of the right to vote for racial minorities. Taking
these two dynamics together, it becomes clear that multiple reforms need to
be undertaken to protect individual rights. First, Congress should attempt to
surmount its political differences to offer legislation to protect individual
rights. In the national security-related cases referenced here, the Bush and
Obama administrations successfully demanded dismissal; even as courts
acquiesced, they exhorted Congress to offer guidance31 or a specific remedy
for plaintiffs32 who offer compelling evidence that they suffered from abuse at
the government’s hands.33 In the context of Shelby County, President
Obama, Attorney General Holder and members of Congress have encouraged
passage of legislation to strengthen access to the ballot box for racial
judiciary to remain vigilant against incursions on the rule of law); Aileen Kavanagh,
Constitutionalism, Counterterrorism and the Courts: Changes in the British Constitutional
Landscape, 9 INT’L J. CONST. L. 172, 173–74 (2011) (discussing the extent to which U.K. courts
have engaged in constitutionalism as part of their decision-making after the passage of the
Human Rights Act of 1998); Mrinal Satish & Aparna Chandra, Of Maternal State and Minimalist
Judiciary: The Indian Supreme Court’s Approach to Terror-Related Adjudication, 21 NAT’L L. SCH.
INDIA REV. 51, 59–67 (2009) (arguing that the Indian Supreme Court has been inconsistent in its
approach to terrorism-related cases and other cases involving fundamental rights).
29 See generally Setty, supra note 6 (detailing plaintiffs’ access to court in United Kingdom and
Israeli cases involving allegations of extraordinary rendition and torture).
30 See generally id.
31 Arar v. Ashcroft, 585 F.3d 559, 564-65 (2d Cir. 2009) (noting that only if “Congress chooses to
legislate on this subject, then judicial review...would be available”); but see id., at 615 (Sack, J.,
dissenting) (arguing that additional congressional guidance was not required before allowing Arar
to pursue his claims).
32 To be specific, the majority in Mohamed, after finding that plaintiffs’ suit should be dismissed,
suggested that that Congress could initiate an investigation into government abuses, enact
private bills to compensate the plaintiffs, or take up state secrets reform. See Mohamed, 614 F.3d
at 1091–92. The majority further suggested that the executive branch may decide someday to
compensate the victims of the extraordinary rendition program, as was done decades after the
rendition and internment of individuals of Japanese descent during World War II. See id. at
1091. It is noteworthy that the majority considered the reparations awarded to World War II
internees as a potentially appropriate model of compensation for extraordinary rendition and
torture, considering that the deferential formalism of Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214
(1944) (holding that race-based exclusion orders were constitutional), is viewed by most modern
commentators as a profound failure of the judiciary to apply a rule of law analysis to a case
weighing security interests with human rights.
33 See Setty, supra note 6, at 1638, 1644 (noting the evidence supporting the veracity of
minorities.34 It is clear that Congress must assert its role to protect the civil
rights of vulnerable populations.35 At the same time, courts must
acknowledge the ongoing preferential judicial activism that has distorted the
judiciary’s role and fueled critiques of the current Court as being
problematically politicized;36 only through such acknowledgement and the
rejection of those preferential norms can the judiciary reassert its
institutional role as a bulwark to protect individual rights.
34 See, e.g., President Barack Obama, Statement by the President on the Supreme Court Ruling on
Shelby County v. Holder, (June 25, 2013) available at
General Eric Holder, Attorney General Eric Holder on Voting Rights Act Decision (June 25, 2013)
available at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/HolderonV; Press Release, Representative
Nancy Pelosi, Pelosi: Supreme Court Takes a Step Backward on Voting Rights (June 25, 2013)
http://pelosi.house.gov/news/press-releases/pelosi-supreme-court-takes-a-stepbackward-on-voting-rights; Press Release, Representative John Lewis, Rep. John Lewis Calls
Court Decision “a Dagger” in the Heart of Voting Access (June 25, 2013) available at
http://johnlewis.house.gov/press-release/rep-john-lewis-calls-court-decision-%E2%80%9Cdagger%E2%80%9D-heart-voting-access; Senator Patrick Leahy, “From Selma to Shelby County:
Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act” (July 17, 2013) available
35 See Rebecca E. Zietlow, ENFORCING EQUALITY: CONGRESS, THE CONSTITUTION, AND THE
PROTECTION OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS 9, 58-59, 164 (2006) (arguing that Congress has acted in
rights-protective ways as a matter of principle, such as the passage of post-Civil War legislation
like the Civil Rights Act of 1866).
36 See, e.g., David Paul Kuhn, The Incredible Polarization and Politicization of the Supreme Court,
THE ATLANTIC, June 29, 2012,