Rule of Law

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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Rule according to law; rule under law; or rule according to a higher law.

The rule of law is an ambiguous term that can mean different things in different contexts. In one context the term means rule according to law. No individual can be ordered by the government to pay civil damages or suffer criminal punishment except in strict accordance with well-established and clearly defined laws and procedures. In a second context the term means rule under law. No branch of government is above the law, and no public official may act arbitrarily or unilaterally outside the law. In a

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third context the term means rule according to a higher law. No written law may be enforced by the government unless it conforms with certain unwritten, universal principles of fairness, morality, and justice that transcend human legal systems.

Rule According to Law

The rule of law requires the government to exercise its power in accordance with well-established and clearly written rules, regulations, and legal principles. A distinction is sometimes drawn between power, will, and force, on the one hand, and law, on the other. When a government official acts pursuant to an express provision of a written law, he acts within the rule of law. But when a government official acts without the imprimatur of any law, he or she does so by the sheer force of personal will and power.

Under the rule of law, no person may be prosecuted for an act that is not punishable by law. When the government seeks to punish someone for an offense that was not deemed criminal at the time it was committed, the rule of law is violated because the government exceeds its legal authority to punish. The rule of law requires that government impose liability only insofar as the law will allow. Government exceeds its authority when a person is held to answer for an act that was legally permissible at the outset but was retroactively made illegal. This principle is reflected by the prohibition against EX POST FACTO LAWS in the U.S. Constitution.

For similar reasons, the rule of law is abridged when the government attempts to punish someone for violating a vague or poorly worded law. Ill-defined laws confer too much discretion upon government officials who are charged with the responsibility of prosecuting individuals for criminal wrongdoing. The more prosecutorial decisions are based on the personal discretion of a government official, the less they are based on law.

For example, the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments requires that statutory provisions be sufficiently definite to prevent ARBITRARY or discriminatory enforcement by a prosecutor. Government officials must not be given unfettered discretion to prosecute individuals for violating a law that is so vague or of such broad applicability that evenhanded administration is not possible. Thus, a Florida law that prohibited VAGRANCY was held VOID FOR VAGUENESS because it was so generally worded that it encouraged erratic prosecutions and made possible the punishment of normally innocuous behavior (Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 [1972]).

Well-established and clearly defined laws allow individuals, businesses, and other entities to govern their behavior accordingly (United States v. E.C. Investments, Inc., 77...

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