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What Are the Different Types of Judicial Philosophy?

By Donn Saylor
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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There are three main types of judicial philosophy: conservative, liberal, and moderate. In a general sense, this field is the philosophical perspectives employed by judges to interpret laws. Specifically, it relates to the United States Supreme Court and the US federal courts and how the justices and judges working in those courts utilize their belief systems to make the rulings they do.

Judicial philosophy plays a vital role in deciding which judges are appointed to court systems. While few judges adhere to a particular philosophy 100-percent of the time, most possess an overall philosophy that is conservative, liberal, or moderate. These philosophies are taken into serious consideration when it is time for lawmakers to nominate judges to the courts. The court system seeks to have a balanced number of judges, ensuring that rulings do not lean too far right or too far left from a political perspective and instead focus on the particular details of individual cases. Maintaining a fair and balanced legal system is one of the ultimate goals of appointing judges of differing judicial philosophies.

A conservative judicial philosophy proposes the idea that the United States Constitution supports certain laws being made by the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government—not by the justices and judges of the Supreme Court and federal courts. This philosophy adheres to the decision that the Constitution is a fixed document that is meant to be taken literally, and the rules of lawmaking and governance are clearly defined within its context. Judges with this philosophy, then, tend to follow traditional lines of thinking and conventional value systems. This has led to many instances of judicial activism, in which judges have utilized the courts to further their own personal beliefs on morality.

The liberal judicial philosophy is, in essence, the opposite of the conservative viewpoint. Liberal judges believe that the Constitution is dynamic in nature and constantly open to interpretation. Due to this stance, a liberal judicial philosophy involves the support of laws that work toward a progressive spectrum of ideas, including civil rights, personal choice, and the separation of church and state. Like conservative philosophy, liberal judges are also prone to making decisions based on personal beliefs about values and morality, which typically challenge more traditional stands and existing laws.

A judge who possesses a moderate judicial philosophy makes decisions that can be either conservative or liberal in nature, depending on the particulars of the case being handled. They do not commit themselves to one line of judicial thought; they can vote either conservatively or liberally. In cases that provide a particular challenge to the courts, judges with a moderate judicial philosophy often provide a swing vote, the deciding vote in a case that throws support behind one side of the philosophical spectrum.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993534 — On Nov 23, 2015

This is incorrect. Judicial philosophy is activism or restraint.

By Markerrag — On Dec 19, 2013

Folks, we're all a lot better with moderates in the judiciary. Conservatives and liberals alike tend to love effectively writing legislation through their decisions instead of simply interpreting the law.

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