“The idea of the rule of law is an ideal”

While revisiting our readings for inspiration, I discovered a section from Altman’s “Rule of Law,” that particularly intrigued me. He argues, “there has certainly never been a perfect example of a government under the rule of law, and it is unreasonable to think there ever will be. In a sense, the idea of the rule of law is an ideal.”

I couldn’t help but want to disagree. Do we not live in a country that prides itself on its fair and democratic government? Upon initial glance, America appears to adhere to all five principles of the rule of law: ensuring the government acts under law, regulating society through a system of rules, providing fair warning to the public, exercising due process, and, most of all, allowing the sovereign people to create their own laws. However, as I began to think about each principle in greater depth, small contradictions arose. 

Take Nixon for example. There is no question that his actions during the Watergate scandal included many illegal activities. If I, or any regular citizen for that matter, were to both wiretap and break-in to a government office, I would surely be sent to jail. Much of Nixon’s staff did face such consequences. His Attorney General, for example, spent over two years in jail. And Nixon? Nada. The main conspirator himself was pardoned, and consequently remained free from any real punishment under the rule of law. Is this really representative of a government under law? Additionally, it doesn’t take an intellect to note that our activities in Guantanamo Bay are clearly a blatant disregard of due process. 

My biggest concern however, was in regard to the theory that sovereign people should have control over the creation of their own laws. While it is true that we have elected those in congress to represent us in the law making process, there is a separate branch of government, whom we do not elect, which appears to exercise a fair amount of its own law making power: our supreme court. While they do not, so to speak, ‘make laws,’ their interpretation of a law (a.k.a. Judicial review) is very much as important as the law itself. Consequently, these nine individuals who have absolutely no responsibility to the public, have a fairly dramatic amount of control over our constitutional law. Therefore, the supreme court is a huge contradiction to the theory of the democratic creation of laws. 

While it may be disheartening, I must acknowledge Altman’s statement as true. It appears it is fairly easy to prove that America’s government, theoretically one of the most democratic in the world, fails to adhere to even his most basic principles. However, his argument in favor of the ideal of the rule of law is a good one. Our inability to maintain the rule of law perfectly should by no means discourage us from trying: the aspiration towards such perfection should be a fundamental goal of our government. 


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