What Exactly is the “Rule of Law”?

court gavelPart of the difficulty in finding common ground on the immigration debate in California is a different understanding of a basic governmental concept: the “rule of law.”

California officials have readily used the phrase when it comes to resisting the Trump Administration’s immigration policy.

Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, admonished the administration for stalking courthouses looking for people in the country illegally when she told the state legislature in her annual speech on the courts, “I submit to you today that the rule of law is being challenged.”

California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, in responding positively to a federal court’s injunction halting Trump’s executive order against sanctuary cities, declared, “This injunction is consistent with the rule of law.”

Yet, those opposed to sanctuary cities and California’s effort to become a sanctuary state ask that if people came into the country against the laws on the books, is not that a violation of the “rule of law”?

Some have even compared the efforts to ignore federal immigration laws to the nullification efforts future Confederate states used to challenge federal authority prior to the Civil War.

Differing views on what constitutes the rule of law intensifies the country’s political divide. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court will determine the law.

Cases before that court on the issue of state sovereignty have occurred in the past, of course. One case cited that may influence the outcome of a new Supreme Court test is Printz vs. United States.

This 1997 case, dealing with the Brady Gun Law, said the state could not compel local officials to execute federal law. The 5 to 4 majority declared that the Tenth Amendment to the constitution allowed the state to ignore a federal mandate, in this case requiring local law enforcement to enforce certain gun laws, because the constitution did not address the specific issue covered by the law.

Interestingly, the court majority, lead by Justice Antonin Scalia, were the conservative jurists on the court. Liberals may now use this decision to argue the Tenth Amendment allows states to declare sanctuary despite federal immigration laws because the sanctuary issue is not in the Constitution.

However, the Printz decision may not cleanly cover the issue of sanctuary cities. The majority opinion in Printz argued that the Framers of the Constitution allowed for federal regulation of international and interstate matters but reserved internal matters for the judgment of state legislatures. It may be argued that border security between nations is an international matter.

Cities can choose to not enforce federal immigration law, but they cannot stop the federal government from enforcing it. This is where the denial of federal funds to sanctuary cities comes into play and will ultimately be tested in court.

Despite the legal battle, it seems a basic understanding of what is meant by “the rule of law” is in order for the on-going immigration debate.

The American Bar Association attempted to frame a discussion of “the rule of law” in a three-page document.

The Bar Association dialogue started with questions:

“The rule of law is a term that is often used but difficult to define. A frequently heard saying is that the rule of law means the government of law, not men. But what is meant by “a government of law, not men”? Aren’t laws made by men and women in their roles as legislators? Don’t men and women enforce the law as police officers or interpret the law as judges? And don’t all of us choose to follow, or not to follow, the law as we go about our daily lives? How does the rule of law exist independently from the people who make it, interpret it, and live it?”

The site contains differing views from two civil rights historical figures.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leader of the early women’s rights movement, is quoted: “It is very important in a republic, that the people should respect the laws, for if we throw them to the winds, what becomes of civil government?”

But one can respect laws and still resist, The Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

The Bar Association comments, “The rule of law is intended to promote stability, but a society that operates under the rule of law must also remain vigilant to ensure the rule of law also serves the interests of justice.”

Strict adherence to laws on the books in relation to a concept of true justice reflects the current debate over immigration issues in this state. Yet, perception by the public of how laws are enforced is as an important part of this debate as is a finally sliced Supreme Court decision on the law. The public’s understanding of the “rule of law” is the tie that keeps in place the foundation of a civil society. So, it is incumbent on all sides of this debate to make clear what is meant in arguing for the “rule of law.”

Joel Fox is editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily.

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