Geoffrey R. Stone

89 Texas L. Rev. 1423

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In this review of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, Professor Stone examines Brennan’s jurisprudence and asks whether “the pejorative ‘judicial activist” [is] warranted.”  Stone first looks at the Court’s economic substantive due process decisions before Brennan joined the Court.  These decisions, writes Stone, “represented a highly controversial form of conservative judicial activism.”  Critics of this type of jurisprudence learned different lessons.  On the one hand, some, like Justice Frankfurter, decided that judicial activism was illegitimate and unwarranted.  Others, like Brennan, thought that judicial activism was not necessarily wrong. But Lochner v. New York was not an appropriate case for judicial activism.

So, it was this concept of selective judicial activism that shaped Brennan’s jurisprudence.  This view, argues Stone, “is deeply rooted in the original understanding of the purpose of judicial review in our system of constitutional governance.”  In light of this, Stone discusses the Framers and the contested inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.  And it was an “originalist” conception of judicial review, Stone writes, that informed Brennan’s selective judicial activism.  Given that anti-majoritarian decisions of the kind Brennan famously wrote tend to not sit well with the majority, it is unsurprising that his jurisprudence thus received harsh criticism, especially from the political arena.

Stone next examines the shift in the judicial makeup of the Court.  The Court had become just as conservative by 1993 as it was liberal in 1968.  But the meaning of “conservative” had also shifted in the modern era.  Previously, it meant a justice committed to judicial restraint.  In the modern era, it came to mean a form of selective judicial activism.  Stone writes that the jurisprudence behind modern conservative decisions to, for example, hold unconstitutional affirmative action programs and gun control regulations “has about it the distinctive air of Platonic guardianship,” exhibiting no judicial restraint.  Stone argues that while there is a discernable conception of judicial review beneath Brennan’s use of judicial activism, there is no similar explanation for the jurisprudence of contemporary conservative judicial activists.

What would constitutional law look like today had justices with the same vision as Brennan remained a majority on the Supreme Court?  According to Stone, such a counterfactual Court might have held, for example, “not that corporations have a constitutional right to spend millions to buy the elected representatives of their choice, but that public officials cannot constitutionally use partisan gerrymandering to ensure their perpetuation in power.”  Stone concludes that interpreting the Constitution is not a mechanical, value-free enterprise.  Instead, as Brennan insisted, the Court’s responsibility in this regard is to “keep the community true to its own fundamental principles.”