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Rule of Law

Rule Under Law

The rule of law also requires the government to exercise its authority under the law. This requirement is sometimes explained with the phrase "no one is above the law." During the seventeenth century, however, the English monarch was vested with absolute sovereignty, including the prerogative to disregard laws passed by the House of Commons and ignore rulings made by the House of Lords. In the eighteenth century, absolute sovereignty was transferred from the British monarchy to Parliament, an event that was not lost on the colonists who precipitated the American Revolution and created the U.S. Constitution.

Under the Constitution, no single branch of government in the United States is given unlimited power. The authority granted to one branch of government is limited by the authority granted to the coordinate branches and by the BILL OF RIGHTS, federal statutory provisions, and historical practice. The power of any single branch of government is similarly restrained at the state level.

During his second term, President RICHARD M. NIXON tried to place the EXECUTIVE BRANCH of the federal government beyond the reach of legal process. When served with a subpoena ordering him to produce a series of tapes that were anticipated to link him to the WATERGATE conspiracy and cover-up, Nixon refused to comply, asserting that the confidentiality of these

The rule of law requiring government to exercise its authority under the law justified the Supreme Court's decision ordering President Nixon to comply with a subpoena and turn over tapes of White House conversations to a congressional impeachment probe.

tapes was protected from disclosure by an absolute and unqualified EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE. In UNITED STATES V. NIXON, 418 U.S. 683, 94 S. Ct. 3090, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1039 (1974), the Supreme Court disagreed, compelling the president to hand over the tapes because the Constitution forbids any branch of government from unilaterally thwarting the legitimate ends of a criminal investigation.

Members of the state and federal judiciary face a slightly different problem when it comes to the rule of law. Each day judges are asked to interpret and apply legal principles that defy clear exposition. Terms like "due process," "reasonable care," and "undue influence" are not self-defining. Nor do judges always agree about how these terms should be defined, interpreted, or applied. When judges issue controversial decisions, they are often accused of deciding cases in accordance with their own personal beliefs, be they political, religious, or philosophical, rather than in accordance with the law.

Scholars have spent centuries examining this issue. Some believe that because the law is written in such indefinite and ambiguous terms, all judicial decisions will inevitably reflect the personal predilections of the presiding judge. Other scholars assert that most laws can be interpreted in a neutral, objective, and apolitical fashion even though all judges may not agree on the appropriate interpretation. In either case the rule of law is better served when judges keep an open mind to alternative readings of constitutional, statutory, and common-law principles. Otherwise, courts run the risk of prejudging certain cases in light of their own personal philosophy.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateRule of Law - Rule According To Law, Rule Under Law, Rule According To Higher Law, Further Readings