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Court System & Democracy

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Courts interpret law and consist of judges. Judges bring their value systems to the job, giving different weight to freedom, order and equality. Federal judges are insulated from politics by lifetime appointments, giving them more liberty to contradict majority will. This means that a president's judicial appointee will make decisions long after that president's term.

Judicial activism is when a judge interprets laws and precedents loosely in a manner influenced by personal values. Judicial restraint is when a judge sticks closely to the law with minimal interference from personal preferences. The judiciary is the least democratic branch of government, with members appointed (not elected), protected from popular control and with life terms. The Supreme Court has even overruled acts of the popularly elected Congress.

The power of the Supreme Court contradicts democratic theory. The decision of the Supreme Court in the 2000 election overturned the ruling of the Florida Court and set aside a constitutional crisis, raising the question of partisanship on the part of the Supreme Court. However, sometimes judicial activism has had a democratic end, as in the Supreme Court's "one person, one vote" decision. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court rarely influences public opinion.

The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review, which allows it to reject any law it deems unconstitutional. This power is not specified in the Constitution, but is instead inferred from the Constitution's text. Since the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Supreme Court has used judicial review to invalidate only about 160 provisions of federal law. Since the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Supreme Court has used judicial review to invalidate nearly 1,300 state laws.

Courts themselves are largely beyond democratic control. Judges are limited by statutes and precedents, but they still have substantial leeway in deciding how to interpret them. Thus their own values often influence their interpretations, setting the stage for judicial restraint or judicial activism. Courts become policymakers when they stray from existing statutes and precedents.

Majoritarians want judges to cling closely to the letter of the law, leaving it to the elected legislature to decide how much emphasis to put on equality or order. Pluralists think the values of judges should come into play to advance the values and interests of the population. Several aspects of the judicial system make it conform to the pluralist model. Among these are the decentralized court system, which offers multiple access points to the legal system, and class action suits, which allow individuals to pool their claims.