The U.S. Constitution was designed to unify thirteen diverse new states under one federal government in a way that would be acceptable to as many as possible. At the time, the new nation was still reeling from the Revolutionary War and trying to reorganize. There was much conflict between the states over economic and political policy, as well as a general fear of centralized power, of returning to a tyrannical government without representation. In order the overcome these fears and prevent any one individual or group from gaining control, the drafters of the Constitution came up with a system of three branches of federal government. Each branch was intended to check and balance the others. All rested on a foundation of popular will whereby elected officials were charged with carrying out the desires and protecting the best interests of their constituents.
Article III of the Constitution established one federal court to adjudicate interstate conflicts and oversee the welfare of the nation as a whole. It also gave Congress the power to establish a system of lesser courts as it deemed necessary. This allowed individual states to maintain some authority by having lower courts address matters they were most familiar with and were best equipped to manage. This also served to free the highest court to deal with the most significant issues carrying potential national impact.
The general purpose of the Supreme Court was to ensure national unity and adherence to the Constitution while maintaining political neutrality as much as possible. The Constitution showed this intent by specifically providing that Justices were allowed to serve for life as long as their behavior was good. Additionally, it disallowed Congress from lowering their salaries or from disbanding the new Court, thus attempting to protect its members from undue influence by various political interests.
In Marbury vs. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court under Federalist John Marshall took its first major step towards becoming the entity it is today. In this decision, the Court defined and expanded its powers to include judicial review. This allowed it to strike down laws that violated the tenets of the Constitution, providing more of a check and balance against the other branches of government. This decision and subsequent changes in society have led to ongoing conflict over court authority. Basically, among the many philosophical nuances, the position of judicial restraint emerged. This doctrine holds that courts should take a back seat and leave most of the power to the legislative and executive branches, as these are the elected bodies and presumably the most capable of reflecting the will of the people as a whole. (The opposite theory is judicial activism, wherein the courts take on more authority than is strictly given to them by the Constitution and make decisions that directly effect public policy, in essence making legislation unconstitutionally from the bench.)
Judicial restraint believes in the most narrow approach to judicial interpretation and thus does not overstep the authority bestowed by the Constitution. In deferring to the more political branches of government, judicial restraint only intervenes when absolutely necessary and does not attempt new interpretations of the Constitution that could open a Pandora’s box. It maintains its authority over the legislature but only steps in and declares a statute unconstitutional when it is blatantly so. Cases are decided when at all possible based upon precedent, without addressing the constitutionality of an issue unless there is no other avenue to a solution and without involvement in social controversies. Instead, these tasks are left to the elected realm, as the U.S. Constitution originally intended. Even when the courts rule negatively on a piece of legislation, the law is left intact as much as can be, with only the removal of the offending portions whenever possible. In these ways, the doctrine of judicial restraint harks back to the Constitution’s original intent that honoring the will of the people is paramount to maintaining the liberty and unity of a diverse population.