Two Faces of Judicial Restraint (Or Are There More?) in McDonald v. Chicago


“Judicial restraint” and its counterpart “judicial activism” are widely regarded as meaningless terms, useful primarily as rhetorical weapons with which to praise or condemn judicial decisions about which the speaker has strong feelings. The terms certainly are frequently used in that manner, but there may also be analytically distinct forms of judicial restraint to which different judges adhere. Academic commentators have articulated and defended various theories of judicial restraint, but my purpose here is to examine the debate “at work,” so to speak, in an actual case.

The Court’s recent Second Amendment incorporation decision, McDonald v. Chicago, is an especially interesting example because strikingly different models of judicial restraint are adopted by subsets of the more conservative wing of the Court, and subtly different models are adopted by subsets of the more liberal wing. A close look at the opinions in the case suggests that each model has different strengths and weaknesses, but also that they are by no means created equal. Surprisingly, perhaps, the most radical sounding opinion in the case may on balance be the most restrained.