Legal Issues In the News

The Rule of Law


A recurrent theme in discussions of politics and public policy today is the rule of law. Pundits, citizens, scholars and officials make arguments for why President Trump is engaged in an "assault on the rule of law", on the other hand, or why his actions demonstrate "respect for the rule of law," on the other. 

There are different definitions of the rule of law, which vary in the number of requirements placed upon government officials and citizens. Minimally, for officials, the rule of law requires that legal rules have a certain form and are enforced in a certain way. In terms of form, laws must not be secret, but must be made publicly accessible. Laws must not change too frequently nor be contradictory in what they demand. In terms of enforcement, government officials must follow and enforce declared rules, constrained in their actions by what declared rules permit, prohibit or require. 

More demanding versions of the rule of law have additional requirements. One further requirement is an independent judiciary; judges who render verdicts based on consideration of the law and not based on bribes or political pressure. Often procedural rights for those who face penalties or imprisonment are added, such as right to representation by counsel at any hearing and a right to question witnesses. Finally, some add substantive rights, such as a right not to be enslaved or property rights. 

The rule of law is taken to be important for a number of reasons. First, the rule of law ensures there is a predictable environment for action. Citizens can know what they will be expected to do and what consequences there will be for violating rules. This treats citizens as agents and respects their dignity. It also facilitates freedom.

Second, the rule of law ensures that no one is above the law. Government officials, as well as citizens, are constrained by legal rules in what they may permissibility do. The rule of law serves as a check on government power and potential abuse.

Third, the rule of law ensures transparency in governance. If rules are publicly accessible and consistently enforced, citizens are in a position to know what policies are actually being pursued by government officials and what actions government officials are taking. This can guard against corruption.