Upholding the Rule of Law; Ronald Reagan Rekindled the Principle of Judicial Restraint

Article excerpt


Both as governor of California and as president of the United States, Ronald Reagan was devoted to the appointment of judges who understood the proper role of the judiciary and the important limitations the U.S. Constitution sets on government.

He took office as governor amid great controversy about the politicization of the judiciary and the quality of judicial appointments. So he initiated a new system for considering the candidates for California's courts.

He organized in each county a group composed of a presiding judge, the president of the local bar association and one to three residents knowledgeable about the court system and the candidates. From their individual assessments, he was able to select the judge with the best qualifications and eliminate any who did not measure up to his exacting standards. As a result, he was recognized by members of both political parties as having appointed the best judges in California history.

As he was running for president, Ronald Reagan raised the issue of judicial activism among the federal courts. He noted that too many judges were substituting their own personal views, policy preferences and political ideas for what the Constitution and the statutes enacted by Congress actually provided. Many legal scholars and knowledgeable observers were concerned that we were no longer a government of laws, but a government where the result depended on who the judge might be. This was particularly true in such cases as religious liberty, freedom of speech, economic affairs and criminal justice. These were matters that most affected the personal lives of American citizens.

Most important to the president was the fact that judicial activism violated the basic constitutional principles of limited government and of checks and balances. When the federal courts turned from interpreting the law to making the law or improperly interfered with the actions of the executive branch, they usurped the powers of the other two branches.

Ronald Reagan was committed to restoring the concept of constitutional fidelity. Judges, he maintained, should base their decisions on the original meaning of the Constitution and of the federal statutes. He explained that the Founding Fathers had given careful thought to the role of the federal judiciary and thought that it should be independent and strong, but with its powers confined within the boundaries of a written Constitution and laws. …