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Rule of Law

Rule According To Higher Law

A conundrum is presented when the government acts in strict accordance with well-established and clearly defined legal rules and still produces a result that many observers consider unfair or unjust. Before the Civil War, for example, African Americans were systematically deprived of their freedom by carefully written codes that prescribed the rules and regulations between master and slave. Even though these slave codes were often detailed, unambiguous, and made known to the public, government enforcement of them produced negative results.

Do such repugnant laws comport with the rule of law? The answer to this question depends on when and where it is asked. In some countries the political leaders assert that the rule of law has no substantive content. These leaders argue that a government may deprive its citizens of fundamental liberties so long as it does so pursuant to a duly enacted law. At the NUREMBERG TRIALS, some of the political, military, and industrial leaders of Nazi Germany unsuccessfully advanced this argument as a defense to Allied charges that they had committed abominable crimes against European Jews and other minorities during WORLD WAR II.

In other countries the political leaders assert that all written laws must conform with universal principles of morality, fairness, and justice. These leaders argue that as a necessary corollary to the axiom that "no one is above the law," the rule of law requires that the government treat all persons equally under the law. Yet the right to equal treatment is eviscerated when the government categorically denies a minimal level of respect, dignity, and autonomy to a single class of individuals. These unwritten principles of equality, autonomy, dignity, and respect are said to transcend ordinary written laws that are enacted by government. Sometimes known as NATURAL LAW or higher law theory, such unwritten and universal principles were invoked by the Allied powers during the Nuremberg trials to overcome the defense asserted by the Nazi leaders.

The rule of law is a concept explain in classical time. In Greece ARISTOTLE wrote that "law should be the final sovereign; and personal rule, whether it be exercised by a single person or a body of persons, should be sovereign in only those matters which law is unable, owing to the difficulty of framing general rules for all contingencies." In ancient Rome the Corpus Juris Civilis established a complex body of procedural and substantive rules, reflecting a strong commitment to the belief that law, not the arbitrary will of an emperor, is the appropriate vehicle for dispute resolution. In 1215 MAGNA CHARTA reined in the corrupt and whimsical rule of King John by declaring that government should not proceed except in accordance with the law of the land.

During the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that the rule of law represents the natural order of God as ascertained through divine inspiration and human reason. In the seventeenth century, the English jurist SIR EDWARD COKE asserted that the "king ought to be under no man, but under God and the law." With regard to the legislative power in England, Coke said that "when an act of Parliament is against common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the COMMON LAW will control it, and adjudge such act to be void." In the United States, ALEXANDER HAMILTON applied the rule of law to the judiciary when he argued in The Federalist, no. 78, that judges "have neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment."

Despite its ancient history, the rule of law was not celebrated in all quarters. The nineteenth-century English philosopher JEREMY BENTHAM described the rule of law as "nonsense on stilts." The twentieth century saw its share of political leaders who oppressed persons or groups without warning or reason, governing as if no such thing as the rule of law existed. For many people around the world, the rule of law is essential to freedom.

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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