Rule of Law
What does a document signed by a king of England over 800 years ago have to do with current events in the United States and around the world? Actually, a lot. The Magna Carta, signed by King John of England in 1215, put in writing the legal principal that laws should govern a nation, as opposed to governing by the arbitrary whims and desires of individual government officials. The United States inherited from England the concept of Rule of Law, which is a term that is used frequently in current events but is difficult to define.
The Rule of Law implies that every person is held accountable to our laws, even the lawmakers themselves and if they disagree with the laws. As citizens in a community, we agree to live by the Rule of Law to maintain social order; in other words, in return for the benefits of social order, we agree to live according to the Rule of Law.
The U.S. Constitution, ratified by the original colonies in 1787, is our highest law and all citizens are bound by its terms. As stated within the supremacy clause: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” The overriding importance of this supremacy clause is the fact that the oaths taken by those holding office in the United States are oaths not to a king, or even to the President or to Congress, but to the United States Constitution and the Rule of Law.
The American Bar Association has created a program to raise awareness of the importance of government by Rule of Law, with its mission to promote justice, economic opportunity and human dignity. The ABA’s The World Justice Project defines the Rule of Law by recognizing four universal principles:
- The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
- The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property and certain core human rights.
- The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
- Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
Further, the Secretary-General of the United Nations defines the Rule of Law as:
“A principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.” (Report of the Secretary-General: The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies (S/2004/616).