Rule of Law

The rule of law is the principle that governmental authority may be exercised only in accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws that are enforced equally and in agreement with established procedure.

The following is an excerpt from “A Simple Concept, a Truly Grand Idea,” by MBA President Thom Brown (The Oregonian, April 28, 2008).

In its most basic form, the rule of law is the principle that no one is above the law. Governmental authority is exercised in accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws adopted and enforced in accordance with due process. That means we are a democracy, governed by laws enforced by a fair and impartial judicial system, relying only on facts and laws. And it means that judges are protected from political, legislative, special interest, media, public and even personal pressures.

Our country’s founders worked to protect courts from these undue demands. They knew that it takes fair and impartial decisions to protect our rights and uphold the rule of law. More than 200 years later, the threat to fair and impartial courts is growing. Special interests are spending millions of dollars to influence legislative decisions and elect judges to serve their agendas or pass statewide ballot measures, not always with the public’s best interest in mind. The cost of judicial campaigns is skyrocketing, forcing judges to raise money as if they were politicians, and the average American has begun to believe that justice is for sale.

In 1984, President Reagan observed, “Our unique experience demonstrates that law and freedom must be indivisible partners [for]without law, there can be no freedom, only chaos and disorder; and without freedom, law is but a cynical veneer for injustice and oppression.”

Sadly, the rule of law has been increasingly denigrated and diminished, by politicians and non-politicians over the past 15 years. That is very disturbing. More importantly, it needs to stop.

In 2000, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens offered a dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, the ruling that decided the presidency. I was recently reminded of something he said in that dissent. Stevens expressed the harm he recognized to the value of the rule of law and, particularly, the harm to judges who protect it every day. He said:

“It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

“Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.”

— John Locke (1690)

“The Law is King.”

—Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”

“To the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”

—Massachusetts Constitution (1780)