“The rule of law” is another one of those phrases that gets thrown around on social media a lot these days by a lot of folks, some of whom seem to understand what it is, and some of whom only seem to have a passing understanding of what it means.
The rule of law is one of those phrases that you would have talked about in the old-timey civics classes. It isn’t so much a legal phrase as an aspirational one. It’s part of the social contract.
When we agree to live in a society, we agree to bind ourselves to the rule of law. We agree to adhere to a particular set of laws. In America, those laws are the ones created by the legislative bodies (the Federal Congress, the State General Assembly, and the local County Commissioners and City Councils) and interpreted and ruled upon by the judicial branch. Collectively, we agree for purposes of the greater good that all of us are not going to agree on all the laws, but that the compromises hacked out by the legislative bodies are the ones we are going to abide by. If we violate those laws, we agree to accept the consequences.
Laws also include procedures – we don’t have kings and queens who can run around commanding, “Off with his head!’ or judges who can order summary execution. There are carefully constructed ways to do things, ways that seem overly complicated at times, but are complicated because doing them the simple way didn’t work for one reason or another in the past and someone saw fit to change it.
Like everything else, laws and procedures are not ‘one size fits all.’ Sometimes a law or procedure doesn’t make perfect sense when forced to deal with a particular situation, and we may want to throw the whole thing out or buck the law or subvert the procedure that works just fine in 99% of the cases. There’s a saying amongst lawyers, which is that “good facts make bad law.” This means that when you get one of those juicy exceptions you can mess everything up for everyone else if you push it too hard.
The rule of law, while inconvenient at times, while inefficient at times, while once in a while producing frustrating results, is what keeps us from anarchy. It’s kind of like the laws of physics – you don’t like the results of the laws of physics all the time. Because of them, every time you t-bone another vehicle someone’s car is going to have serious damage and likely someone is going to be gravely injured. At the same time, though, don’t you like knowing exactly what will happen every time you drop a ball?
Despite the allure of anarchy or the “rules were made to be broken” or even the “every rule has an exception” philosophy, rules are important. They give us clear guidelines and expectations. When we know what the rules are we know what to do and what is and isn’t expected of us in any given situation. If we all agree to the same set of rules, whether or not we agree with each individual rules, in theory we can all live together harmoniously.
That’s the rule of law. It’s opposite is chaos.
Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.