Prof. Corey Yung has a very interesting post, one of several more to come, about how to measure judicial activism. As best I can tell it relates to the panel, rather than individual appellate judges. But non-the-less, it’s an interesting way to look at how activist a court may be.
So, appellate judges are more “activist” when they reverse district court judgments under a deferential standard at a higher relative rate compared to reversals using a non-deferential standard. My exact measure (or activism “score”) for activism is reversal rate in non-deferential cases minus the reversal rate in deferential cases. This measure captures when a judge is not deferring to other constitutional actors when we would normally expect him or her to do so.
The measure has the advantage of not being based upon the substantive outcome of the case. A judge can use either a deferential or non-deferential standard and still find for either party. Since we might think that activist judges are not keen to make clear that their decisions are actually activist, looking at substantive outcomes can be tricky as judges try to mask an appearance of activism. Since standards of review are usually non-controversial (in that the parties rarely dispute over which standard applies) formal rules, we might think that there will be less ability for judges to mask their activism. Ultimately, the failure to defer by a judge over time indicates a relative propensity for activism even if we cannot say for certain that any individual decision is activist. As will be clear in my next post, judges vary quite a bit in their deference under standards of review.
Measuring Judicial Activism by Federal Appellate Judges, at Concurring Opinions.