May 1 is Law Day. Isn’t that just a time when lawyers and judges get together to hype the legal system? I suppose it is that, but it is much more. It is a time to reflect on the remarkable system that the United States has established to adjudicate criminal charges and resolve civil disputes. Our system is admired by people and businesses around the world and it is responsible for making America the greatest economic power and moral beacon on the planet.
At the very foundation of our country is a dedication to the rule of law. People in America can generally walk down the street with the comfort of knowing they will not be accosted without good reason by government authorities. That is simply not the case in so many countries around the globe. There are many laws at both the federal and state levels that protect Americans from arbitrary government action. We take those protections for granted. We know that if we speak out against government policy we won’t be whisked off to a detention facility. People in Russia, China, and a myriad of other countries don’t have legal systems that will protect them against suffering punishment for voicing dissent. Witness the poisonings and assassinations of regime opponents in present-day Russia.
America grew into an economic powerhouse because of its observance of the rule of law. Businessmen in the U.S. and from around the world know that their assets will not be arbitrarily confiscated by the government. It is a given that the judicial system will decide disputes between and among people and businesses in a fair and impartial manner. With the assurance that their funds and investments will be safe from plunder by agents of the state, entrepreneurs have been willing to innovate and build businesses that fuel growth in the U.S. economy. Compare that with countries like Russia where successful businessmen who do not support the Putin regime have found themselves facing phony criminal charges and having their assets confiscated.
Due process is a hallmark of America’s legal system. People can’t be deprived of a property interest by the government without proper notice and an opportunity for a hearing. Where property is taken for a public purpose, such as a highway, the property owner is entitled to just compensation. People suspected of crimes are entitled to a variety of protections all of the way through investigative and court proceedings. Federal due process protections are applied in state courts through the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment also ensures that citizens throughout the country have equal protection under the law.
The foundation of our rule of law was laid out in our remarkable Constitution. The framers laid out the rights of citizens but also embedded provisions to prevent the erosion of those rights, what we often call checks and balances. Governmental power was divided among three branches–Congress was given the power to enact laws, the President was charged with faithfully carrying out those laws, and the judiciary was charged with applying the law. The courts cannot make their own laws but they routinely say how the Constitution and Congressional laws are to be interpreted. One thing that the courts have historically done is to act as a check on the other two branches–to make sure that laws passed by Congress do not violate the Constitution and to make sure that the President does not exceed his lawful authority. They do neither unless a litigant brings a challenge to government action before the court.
Some people have the impression that judges base their decisions upon their own personal beliefs. I won’t deny that this happens on occasion but I believe it is a rather rare occurrence. Often constitutional or statutory language can be interpreted in more than one way. This does not occur often, but when judges disagree on the proper interpretation there is generally merit on both sides. It does not necessarily show that judges are imposing their personal opinions. I served on the Idaho Supreme Court for twelve years and can’t recall an instance where one of my colleagues decided a case based on his personal beliefs. I do know that each of my colleagues decided cases in conflict with his personal opinions. That is because they respect and observe the rule of law.
Despite periodic imperfections in our legal system, it is still the gold standard around the world for people who are free or want to be. It is something for all of us to celebrate, not just the legal community. On May 1 let’s toast our rule-of-law system and give it thanks for all the blessings it has given us.