Imagine you are at a stoplight when the light turns green. You press the gas and the car rolls forward through the intersection until suddenly….. nothing happens at all. Well, that's what you would expect wouldn’t you? When we drive through an intersection, we expect the people around us to stop when the light turns red. We expect ourselves to go through the intersection peacefully and in order. This scenario represents the rule of law– when individuals in a society follow laws so that society can expect a consistent and ordered civilization.
In the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “the term rule of law is often invoked yet seldom defined.”
The 2004 Report of 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.” In other words, the rule of law means that everyone in a society must follow the laws created.
The Rule of Law comprises a number of principles that address the way a community is governed. It is both the job of the government and the citizens to uphold this principle of the rule of law. In the aspect of the citizen, they must agree to comply with the laws as the laws are equally enforced to everybody. The two dictating factors of the rule of law is that nobody is above the law and that everyone has an equal access to the law’s protection.
The law should be public knowledge, so that the people know how to uphold it (for example, teaching everyone that you need to stop at red lights and go at green lights)
Legal institutions and procedures to applying the law should be of equal access to people when upholding their rights (for example, policy officers must pull over everyone who runs a red light)
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that, “the [r]ule of [l]aw requires that legal rules be publicly known, consistently enforced, and even-handedly applied.”
Core Principles of the Rule of Law:
Superiority of the Law: the law is the highest power in a government…not the leader. (See Supremacy Clause)
Equal Application of the Rule of Law: everyone no matter of race, gender, or position of power must follow the same laws to the same degree
A Separation of Powers: Having separation of powers promotes rule of law in government
Just Laws: laws themselves must conform with standards of justice and individual rights - Ronald Dworkin
Ways the Rule of Law is Measured:
The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index provides a quantitative assessment tool to determine the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice. It measures rule of law in the following categories:
A system of self-government in which all persons, including the government, are accountable under the law
A system based on fair, publicized, broadly understood and stable laws
A fair, robust, and accessible legal process in which rights and responsibilities based in law are evenly enforced
Diverse, competent, and independent lawyers and judges
As countries such as the United States strive to uphold the ideal of the rule of law, it is still a work in progress. As the nuances of the definition of the rule of law are addressed, its purpose serves to strive towards promoting protection of human rights worldwide.
Next time you go through an intersection and you don’t get T-Boned, just know that the rule of law is at work. When other citizens obey the laws set up in society, you can expect to be a little more at peace.