By Maddie Wray '24
On Sept. 28, which happened to be National Voter Registration Day, the honorable Judge James Andrew Wynn gave a very timely lecture on redistricting and gerrymandering in the judicial system during the Polis conference: Redistricting and American Democracy. Wynn provided a unique inside perspective on the case of Rucho v. Common Cause, for which he authored the decision that was eventually brought before the Supreme Court.
Wynn began his address with a discussion of judicial activism, which he defines as when the court rejects or ignores a “well-established and traditional decisional tool” without providing reason for doing so. When judges reject long-applied decisional tools, Wynn explains, they are effectively invalidating their predecessors and the precedents that had been trusted before the case at hand. His key point was that judicial activism expands the universe in which individual courts and judges can rest on their own opinions rather than the judicial procedure set by our history. This mindset can then be extended to other branches of government, as well. As Wynn stated, “an independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to our democracy;” if the courts begin to overrule their precedents, other branches such as the legislature can be encouraged to reject their own. Judicial activism, Wynn explained, must be used with caution, precision, and transparency.
Wynn identified the Rucho v. Common Cause case as one indicative of judicial activism. The Rucho case had gained steam following its victories in North Carolina trial courts, which had sided with the plaintiffs in determining the 2016 redistricting map as unconstitutional gerrymandering that gave Republicans an advantage. However, once the case reached the Supreme Court, it was struck down as injusticible, with the court claiming that “no judicially manageable standard exists.” Wynn stated that in the decision to strike down this case, past court precedents and traditions were ignored; it did not employ the decisional tools such as the accurate characterization of arguments and the deference to trial courts’ factual findings. In the Supreme Court decision, the plaintiff’s claims were mischaracterized as being based in a need for proportional representation, which had been previously disproven by the trial courts. By succumbing to judicial activism, Wynn explained, the court improperly enhanced their power to decide this case on their own discretion.
Wynn ended his address on a powerful note; he said that all parts of our government are meant to be elected through a democratic process—a process that is threatened by both gerrymandering and judicial activism. “Judges must avoid judicial activism,” Wynn said as a final remark, “and maintain our integrity and independence.”
As a public policy student, I of course have learned the branches of government and am familiar with the judicial branch, but Judge Wynn’s address brought another perspective that I had never truly investigated before. Judicial activism was an unfamiliar term, but after this conference, it is something I think I will have trouble ignoring. At first glance, judicial activism seems like something that would be common sense and even good for judges to employ in their decisions, but Judge Wynn posed several interesting concerns, especially regarding this case, that made me rethink my opinions and position. While I still believe that it is important for judges to consider broader societal implications that go beyond the strict written doctrine of law and sometimes to override the precedents set, I can now see how judicial activism must be used with discretion. The fact that the judges in the Rucho v. Common Cause case were able to use judicial activism as reasoning to disregard precedents that were expected to be followed made it so the plaintiffs were stripped of the justice the law had promised them and the justice upon which they had built their case. There is a time and a place for judicial activism, Wynn has made me realize. In my opinion, as someone more progressive-minded, judicial activism is vital in breaking down the systemic barriers that are found within precedent that may have been long respected; however, as Wynn described, judicial activism cannot override the duty of judges to the laws we have put in place that enable citizens to pursue their own justice.
Maddie Wray is a sophomore majoring in Public Policy with a French language minor. She is involved in writing and music communities on campus and currently works with Sanford as a student assistant on the Communications team.