What Is Judicial Restraint? Definition and Examples

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Judicial restraint is a legal term that describes a type of judicial interpretation that emphasizes the limited nature of the court's power. Judicial restraint asks judges to base their decisions solely on the concept of stare decisis, an obligation of the court to honor previous decisions.

The Concept of Stare Decisis

This term is more commonly known as "precedent." Whether you've had experiences in court or you've seen it on television, attorneys often fall back on precedents in their arguments to the court. If Judge X ruled in such and such a way in 1973, the current judge should certainly take that into consideration and rule that way as well. The legal term stare decisis means "to stand by things decided" in Latin. 

Judges often refer to this concept as well when they're explaining their findings, as if to say, "You may not like this decision, but I'm not the first to reach this conclusion." Even Supreme Court justices have been known to rely on the idea of stare decisis. 

Of course, critics argue that just because a court has decided in a certain way in the past, it doesn't necessarily follow that that decision was correct. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist once said that state ​decisis is not "an inexorable command." Judges and justices are slow to ignore precedent regardless. According to Time Magazine, William Rehnquist also held himself out "as an apostle of judicial restraint."

The Correlation With Judicial Restraint

Judicial restraint offers very little leeway from stare decisis, and conservative judges often employ both when deciding cases unless the law is clearly unconstitutional. The concept of judicial restraint applies most commonly at the Supreme Court level. This is the court that has the power to repeal or wipe out laws that for one reason or another have not stood the test of time and are no longer workable, fair or constitutional. These decisions all come down to each justice's interpretation of the law and can be a matter of opinion, which is where judicial restraint comes in. When in doubt, don't change anything. Stick with precedents and existing interpretations. Do not strike down a law that previous courts have upheld before. 

Judicial Restraint vs. Judicial Activism

Judicial restraint is the opposite of judicial activism in that it seeks to limit the power of judges to create new laws or policy. Judicial activism implies that a judge is falling back more on his personal interpretation of a law than on precedent. He allows his own personal perceptions to bleed into his decisions. 

In most cases, the judicially restrained judge will decide a case in such a way as to uphold the law established by Congress. Jurists who practice judicial restraint show solemn respect for the separation of governmental problems. Strict constructionism is one type of legal philosophy espoused by judicially restrained judges.

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Hawkins, Marcus. "What Is Judicial Restraint? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-judicial-restraint-3303631. Hawkins, Marcus. (2021, February 16). What Is Judicial Restraint? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-judicial-restraint-3303631 Hawkins, Marcus. "What Is Judicial Restraint? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-definition-of-judicial-restraint-3303631 (accessed February 9, 2023).