Yes and no.
Yes, “activism” is in the eye of the beholder. If you are conservative, and a liberal legislative body is passing laws that are “liberal” in nature, a court which uses some constitutional law theory to strike such laws down is not being “activist,” but, rather, applying the strict construction of the Constitution to reign in out-of-control legislators. When a conservative legislative body passes a law that is struck down by a liberal court, using an expanded concept of constitutional law, this is “judicial activism” of the worst kind. If you want really aggressive “judicial activism,” simply look at the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States during the first 35 years of the last century, during which time it was controlled by Republicans of a quite conservative stripe.
On the other hand:
In general, when the Court is being “run” by conservatives, and is striking down legislation, it usually is doing so by using a restrictive interpretation of the Constitution. Remember that, in general, what defines liberalism is the willingness to focus on the rights of the individual over the rights of government to regulate the individual. Since the Constitution has only certain less-than-well-defined limits upon government power over individuals, any attempt to reign in a “liberal” Congress or legislature doesn’t usually require drawing larger boundaries around permissible legislative actions. By contrast, a liberal Court, attempting to protect individuals from an aggressive legislature will seek to do so by expanding the protections found in the Consitution to cover the situation before them. Viewed this way, “judicial activism” is rarely involved when striking down legislative acts from the standpoint of conservative readings of the Constitution.
As an example:
Congress wants to control the distance that convicted sexual offenders can live from schools, perceiving that the public wishes stricter limits than some states are allowing. Congress passes a bill tying use of the school funds that each state gets from Congress to passage by the state of legislation setting stricter limits on the distances involved. California objects, and takes the matter to the Supreme Court, where Justice ScaliThomas votes to strike the law down as an improper usage of Congress’ right to control the purse strings of federal funds. Is this “judicial activism?” Some on the side of liberalism might say it is, since it denies the people the will of their representatives and, potentially, creates new law on the issue. But looking at what has happened, the Court hasn’t in such a case expanded anything. Rather, it has refused to let Congress expand its powers. That is hardly “judicial activism.”
On the other hand, if Justice O’Kennedy votes to strike the law down on the basis that it fails to meet some three-point test designed to avoid trampling on some person’s “due process” rights, requiring the Court to weigh the value of the law versus the harm it does, THAT would certainly be “judicial activism,” since it would be putting the ultimate policy decision in the hands of the Court. It is precisely that sort of approach that the Court used in the early 1900’s to void several attempts by Progressive legislatures to address important social and commercial issues raised by the economy of the time.