• The Committee for Justice

Recalling John McCain's 2008 Speech on Judicial Activism

Today's Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for nominees John Bush and Kevin Newsom produced much debate around the topic of judicial activism. It is therefore fitting for us to look back on a May 2008 speech by Senator John McCain in which the Senator made an eloquent appeal for judicial restraint. In his speech, Senator McCain explained the inherently anti-democratic nature of judicial activism and its appeal to the liberal intellectual elite:

“Often, political causes are brought before the courts that could not succeed by democratic means, and some federal judges are eager to oblige.”

“[B]y Senator Obama's standard, even Judge Roberts didn't measure up. And neither did Justice Samuel Alito. Apparently, nobody quite fits the bill except for an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it – and they see it only in each other.

McCain called out Senate Democrats on the real motive behind their personal attacks on a Republican administration's judicial nominees.

“[W]hen President Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsberg to serve on the high court, I voted for their confirmation, as did all but a few of my fellow Republicans. Why? For the simple reason that the nominees were qualified, and it would have been petty, and partisan, and disingenuous to insist otherwise. Those nominees represented the considered judgment of the president of the United States. And under our Constitution, it is the president's call to make.”

“We've seen and heard the shabby treatment accorded to nominees, the caricature and code words shouted or whispered … We have seen disagreements redefined as disqualifications … Always hanging in the air over these tense confirmation battles is the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, a nominee for the Court will dare to be faithful to the clear intentions of the framers and to the actual meaning of the Constitution.”

McCain pointed out that Senate Democrats are putting ideology above the needs of the people living in the states of the Circuit, who face diminished access to justice due to the vacancy crisis on that circuit:

“[A]t this moment there are 31 nominations pending, including several for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that serves North Carolina. Because there are so many cases with no judges to hear them, a 'judicial emergency' has been declared here by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. And a third of the entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is vacant. But the alarm has yet to sound for the Senate majority leadership. Their idea of a judicial emergency is the possible confirmation of any judge who doesn't meet their own narrow tests of party and ideology. They want federal judges who will push the limits of constitutional law, and, to this end, they have pushed the limits of Senate rules and simple courtesy.”

The increasingly partisan and contentious nature of judicial confirmations is a direct result of the judicial activism that has turned the federal courts into ideological battlegrounds.

“The sum effect of these capricious rulings has been … to turn Senate confirmation hearings into a gauntlet of abuse...The surest way to restore fairness to the confirmation process is to restore humility to the federal courts.”

McCain promised that, under his presidency, there will no more Souters or other disasters resulting from the temptation to pick stealth nominees.

“[I]n the presidential selection of those who will write those decisions, a hunch, a hope, and a good first impression are not enough. I will not seek the confidence of the American people in my nominees until my own confidence is complete – until I am certain of my nominee's ability, wisdom, and demonstrated fidelity to the Constitution. I will look for accomplished men and women with a proven record of excellence in the law, and a proven commitment to judicial restraint.”

Given that property rights have become unfashionable in recent decades, we’re happy to see that McCain has not lost sight of their importance.

“There is hardly a clearer principle in all the Constitution than the right of private property.”

Note: This post was adapted from a longer 2008 blog post from The Committee for Justice.


The full text of Senator McCain's speech is posted below:

Thank you, Ted, and thank you all very much. Dr. Hatch, I’m grateful for your invitation to this great university. And Senator Richard Burr, thank you for that warm welcome to North Carolina and to Wait Chapel. I’m honored to be here, and I brought along a friend. I’m sure you’ll recognize him — my pal, Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

We appreciate the hospitality of the students and faculty of Wake Forest University, and especially during exams. I know exam week involves some tough moments, like when you’re up at 3:00 a.m. and have to choose between studying or watching one of Fred’s old movies. Most of the students here look confident and ready, so you need no advice from me as final exams draw near. But for those of you who might be feeling a slight sense of panic coming on, all I can say is that a few bad grades don’t have to be end of the road — so just give it your best and move on. An undistinguished academic record can be overcome in life, or at least that is the hope that has long sustained me.

Your kind invitation brings me here as a candidate for president of the United States, and anyone in that pursuit has plenty of promises to make and to keep. When it’s all over, however, the next president will be compelled to make just one promise, in the same words that 42 others have spoken when the moment arrived. The framers of our Constitution had a knack for coming right to the point, and it shows in the 35-word oath that ends with a pledge to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution itself.

This is what we require and expect of every president, no matter what the agenda or loyalties of party. All the powers of the American presidency must serve the Constitution, and thereby protect the people and their liberties. For the chief executive or any other constitutional officer, the duties and boundaries of the Constitution are not just a set of helpful suggestions. They are not just guidelines, to be observed when it’s convenient and loosely interpreted when it isn’t. The clear powers defined by our Constitution, and the clear limits of power, lose nothing of their relevance with time, because the dangers they guard against are found in every time.

In America, the constitutional restraint on power is as fundamental as the exercise of power, and often more so. Yet the framers knew that these restraints would not always be observed. They were idealists, but they were worldly men as well, and they knew that abuses of power would arise and need to be firmly checked. Their design for democracy was drawn from their experience with tyranny. A suspicion of power is ingrained in both the letter and spirit of the American Constitution.

In the end, of course, their grand solution was to allocate federal power three ways, reserving all other powers and rights to the states and to the people themselves. The executive, legislative, and judicial branches are often wary of one another’s excesses, and they should be. They seek to keep each other within bounds, and they are supposed to. And though you wouldn’t always know it from watching the day-to-day affairs of modern Washington, the framers knew exactly what they were doing, and the system of checks and balances rarely disappoints.

There is one great exception in our day, however, and that is the common and systematic abuse of our federal courts by the people we entrust with judicial power. For decades now, some federal judges have taken it upon themselves to pronounce and rule on matters that were never intended to be heard in courts or decided by judges.

With a presumption that would have amazed the framers of our Constitution, and legal reasoning that would have mystified them, federal judges today issue rulings and opinions on policy questions that should be decided democratically. Assured of lifetime tenures, these judges show little regard for the authority of the president, the Congress, and the states. They display even less interest in the will of the people. And the only remedy available to any of us is to find, nominate, and confirm better judges.

Quite rightly, the proper role of the judiciary has become one of the defining issues of this presidential election. It will fall to the next president to nominate hundreds of qualified men and women to the federal courts, and the choices we make will reach far into the future.

My two prospective opponents and I have very different ideas about the nature and proper exercise of judicial power. We would nominate judges of a different kind, a different caliber, a different understanding of judicial authority and its limits. And the people of America — voters in both parties whose wishes and convictions are so often disregarded by unelected judges — are entitled to know what those differences are.

Federal courts are charged with applying the Constitution and laws of our country to each case at hand. There is great honor in this responsibility, and honor is the first thing to go when courts abuse their power. The moral authority of our judiciary depends on judicial self-restraint, but this authority quickly vanishes when a court presumes to make law instead of apply it. A court is hardly competent to check the abuses of other branches of government when it cannot even control itself.

One Justice of the Court remarked in a recent opinion that he was basing a conclusion on “my own experience,” ev