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Last Modified: May 2, 2023

Judicial Restraint

Judicial restraint is “the doctrine that cases should be decided on the narrowest possible grounds, without resolving unnecessary issues, especially political or social controversies.” The separation of powers in the United States government is offered as a mandate for judicial restraint: The legislative branch of government passes laws, the executive branch enforces them, and the judicial branch exists to interpret the law; whenever one of these branches strays into the territory of another, they have overstepped their authority. Thus, judicial restraint is an attitude of ideological conservatism barring creative interpretations of the law that are not firmly entrenched in common law; that judges are not to undermine laws and their traditions except in outstanding circumstances (such as when the law is flagrantly unconstitutional). This characteristic adherence to the precedent set by previous rulings is called stare decisis.

Example Sentence

While judicial activism sometimes seeks to correct the injustices of discriminatory laws or their improper execution, judicial restraint constrains the judge from taking so much into their own hands.

Case Study

In 1857, Justice Roger Taney exercised both judicial restraint and its antithesis with his ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford.  Dred Scott, an enslaved African, had spent 10 years with his master in Illinois and Louisiana (where slavery was forbidden) before being compelled to return to the slave state of Missouri.  Scott tried to claim residency in the free territories where he had lived and the freedom that would come with it, but was denied on the ground that no other slave had been granted full citizenship in that manner.  Justice Taney ruled that Scott could not become a resident of a state or territory without first being a citizen.  Because there was then no legal precedent to support Scott’s claim to freedom on the basis given, judicial restraint prevented Taney from granting it. (He then went on to exercise judicial activism by declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.)

Other Important Information

Judicial restraint is used to maintain the integrity of the courts. If every judge interpreted the law in their own way and used their own preferences of the law to make decisions, rulings would be all across the board. Some who are in favor of judicial restraint also believe in the Plain Meaning Rule. This rule is a stem of judicial restraint in that statutes and laws should be interpreted in a common-sense or ordinary way. It is to say that it means what is says it means, without any fancy or sophisticated interpretations that could change the meaning of the law.