05 Feb Yes, the Rule of Law Must Remain Central to the Debate on Trumpism
[Ian Seiderman is the Legal and Policy Director, International Commission of Jurists]
Andrew O’Hehir, an ordinarily astute analyst of US political skullduggery, adopts a contrarian posture when it comes to Trump, Trumpism and the rule of law. He thinks that all the brouhaha about trampling on cherished rule of law traditions misses the point. What’s so precious anyway, he suggests, about mutable law written by corrupt, unprincipled or ideologically charged politicians? Writing in Salon recently, O’Hehir characterizes the rule of law as “a poorly defined principle”:
It seems ludicrous to claim that anyone, of any party or any ideology, actually sees the law as a neutral or abstract force rather than a naked instrument of power.
Nothing has traditionally been more central to Americans’ quasi-religious understanding of their democracy than the importance of the rule of law, which can be broadly defined as the notion that laws should govern people rather than the other way around. (Spoiler alert: There’s an enormous paradox baked into that from the beginning, since it’s always people with power who make the laws in the first place.) That was essentially the basis for the constitutional separation of powers laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which was meant to ensure that the law itself would remain independent of those who enacted it, enforced it or interpreted it.
O’Hehir goes on to point out the obvious: that certain long discredited tenets like the absolute sacrosanctity of property rights and the natural order of slavery were once grounded in principles of law in the United States. He adds that it is in fact the contested political terrain of liberal democracies with their market economies that “produce [a] vision of the law as a neutral, independent and almost mystical force that stands outside the control of any person or any party.”
For those of us who consider the rule of law to be a near-universal principle that can operate comfortably within a broad – though hardly infinite – range of political and economic arrangements, O’Hehir’s arguments do not sit well. He is hardly the first commentator to assume that the “rule of law” is tantamount to “rule by law”: indeed there are advocates of this “thin” notion of the rule of law, epitomized by the writings of 19th century British jurist A.V. Dicey and the “Singapore model”. But this line of thinking ignores the now more dominant conception of the rule of law as not simply a value neutral construct addressed to forms and procedures, but a norm-laden overarching governance framework. (In fairness to O’Hehir, his point is ultimately that the rule of law is an elusive concept, not that it must mean rule by laws imposed by the powerful.)
While the normative concept of the rule of law has long antecedents, a watershed moment for its entrenchment in international law discourse was the Nuremberg and other legislation that emerged during the Third Reich. Thus the Justice Case (United States v- Alstoetter) before Military Tribunal III, the defendants that included judges, prosecutors and officials of the German Ministry of Justice could be held responsible for a criminal enterprise by the very fact that they enacted or enforced legal statutes and decrees, such as the Night and Fog decree. Respecting those perverse laws necessarily meant not respecting the rule of law.
The organization which I serve, the International Commission of Jurists, devoted the first 15 years of its existence during the 1950s and 60s, to defining what we then called the “dynamic” conception of the rule of law. The idea was that the rule of law is not an abstract notion, but necessarily tied to other legal and normative content, especially human rights principles. Rule of law was a broad organizing concept under which a range of correlatives principles could be grouped. And to O’Hehir’s point, those normative principles are quite apart from the underlying subject matter of particular statutory legislation or administrative rules at issue. This view has over time gained widespread international currency, promoted by leading judges, like the late Lord Tom Bingham, endorsed at the political level and serving the basis for major work from UN agencies such as UNDP and OHCHR.
A definitive enumeration of rule of law principles may have so far eluded universally accepted codification, but building on the historic work of the ICJ there have at least been attempts at enumeration. One example, where most of the elements are more or less uncontroversial, has the imprimatur of the States of the UN Rights Council. Its Resolution on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, adopted in 2012, highlights, among many other elements, the principles of the separation of powers; legality; equal protection before courts and under the law; non-discrimination; accountability, including criminal accountability for human rights and IHL violations; the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; the subordination of the military to civilian authorities; access to justice; gender equality; and the right to effective remedies for rights violations.
Whether adherence to rule of law in this kind of progressive framing is by itself sufficient to address the myriad transgressions by Trump and his acolytes, is questionable, but it is certainly part of the equation. For instance, the idea that a State’s prosecution services must be functionally independent of the political arms of the executive is a well entrenched rule of law principle which Trump and his subordinates have certainly run over rough shod, especially in respect of the FBI and Special Counsel investigations on “collusion” and obstruction of justice. The fact that some administered laws could themselves theoretically run afoul of the rule of law or constitute poor policy is a critical but distinct issue that should not blind one to the indispensability of the rule of law itself.