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August 22, 2019

Rule of Law in American Life: A Long and Intentional Tradition

Everyone contributes to the rule of law. 

No country can maintain a rule of law society if its people do not respect the laws. Everyone must make a commitment to respect laws, legal authorities, legal signage and signals, and courts. Imagine if everyone in your community decided that they did not want to be bothered by traffic laws and signals, for example. The streets in your community would quickly become a chaotic and less safe place. Police officers might be overwhelmed trying to help the situation, or ignored altogether.

The rule of law functions because most of us agree that it is important to follow laws every day. As a result, we teach about law in schools, talk about law, enjoy numerous courtroom dramas, and, accept law as a part of American culture. As Danish scholar Helle Porsdam has said, “Americans practically think and breathe in legal terms.”

There is a long tradition of rule of law in the United States.

Even before the United States was a nation, there was talk among colonists that laws should govern a new nation, not individuals, including kings or queens, as they’d seen in Britain and other countries. One colonist, Thomas Paine, produced a booklet in 1776 called Common Sense, and it became a bestseller by today’s standards. In it, he detailed how, “in America, law is king.”

The Declaration of Independence was a legal document.

Structured as a legal document known as a bill in equity, it includes a statement regarding jurisdiction, the identification of parties, a list of wrongs, an explanation of why other remedies would not suffice, a request for remedy, and even a typical concluding oath. Had Jefferson not been presenting his claim for independence to the court of world opinion, he might have used the very same document to request that a Virginia court prevent a neighbor’s cow from trampling his client’s vegetable garden.

The Constitution is the foundation for law in the United States.

It created a framework for American government, establishing three separate branches so that each branch would be independent and balanced among the others. The Legislative Branch—Congress—would make laws openly and transparently. The Executive Branch—the President, Cabinet, and other agencies—would enforce laws, consistently, and never place anyone above the law. The Judicial Branch—federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court—would interpret laws and resolve disputes independently and impartially.

Rights are protected under the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution identifies certain individual rights, including rights to due process and a lawyer in court. The Constitution also limits the actions of the government, protecting everyone against an established state religion, a state-controlled press, unlawful searches, and cruel and unusual punishments. 

Adapted and excerpted from David Papke’s article, “A Legal Faith for the New Republic,” which appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Insights on Law & Society. David Ray Papke is a professor at Marquette University Law School.