In this Part II of my two-part series on the rule of law, I was going to explain how the rule of law is declining in America. But Monday’s massive FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s residence for alleged misuse of government documents—after the FBI gave Hillary Clinton a pass for a similar offense—has made my case for me.
In Part I, I summarized an Aug. 4 executive order (pdf) issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It suspended from office one Andrew Warren, a “woke” prosecutor who refused to enforce certain laws with which he disagreed.
I explained that DeSantis (or his staff) crafted his order in a way that forestalled any credible line of attack from the liberal-propaganda media. I added that the order may help reverse a current drop in respect for the rule of law.
In this Part II, I’ll explain what the rule of law is, why it’s important, and provide further evidence—if any is necessary—of how it has deteriorated.
What is the Rule of Law and Why is it Important?
Compliance with the rule of law means that (1) legal standards are clear, enforced, and reasonably stable, (2) officials comply with and enforce those standards, and (3) the judicial system is impartial, fair, and reasonably efficient. When the rule of law is respected, a citizen can usually predict the consequences of following, or violating, legal standards.
Without the rule of law, democratic self-governance is impossible. When officials violate, or refuse to enforce, measures adopted by the people and the people’s representatives, those officials undermine democracy. That’s why Gov. DeSantis accused Warren of “usurping the province of the Florida Legislature.”
Without the rule of law, economic prosperity is also impossible. Legal standards must be clear and predictable before investors will risk capital and before entrepreneurs commit their time and creativity. When rules are fuzzy, unevenly enforced, or subject to random change, investors and entrepreneurs shy away.
In the years immediately before adoption of the U.S. Constitution, demagogic politicians had weakened the rule of law in some states. One reason the Founders adopted the Constitution was to shore up the rule of law. In No. 44 of “The Federalist,” James Madison wrote:
“The sober people of America are weary of the fluctuating policy which has directed the public councils. They have seen with regret and indignation that sudden changes and legislative interferences, in cases affecting personal rights, become jobs [i.e., opportunities for unfair gain] in the hands of enterprising and influential speculators, and snares to the more-industrious and less informed part of the community. They have seen, too, that one legislative interference is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions, every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding. They very rightly infer, therefore, that some thorough reform is wanting, which will banish speculations on public measures, inspire a general prudence and industry, and give a regular course to the business of society.”
The New Decline in the Rule of Law
The disparity of official treatment of Trump and Clinton is but a vignette in a much wider mural. A 2021 international survey shows that the United States has dropped to 27th place among all nations in its respect for the rule of law (pdf). Another survey observes that in the United States, “the judicial appointments process has become increasingly politicized. A troubling and growing tendency of federal governance by the unaccountable administrative state empowered by presidential decrees has undermined public confidence in the rule of law. Public perceptions of corruption and distrust of institutions have been rising in recent years.”
Our decline toward third-world status began in earnest during the presidency of Barack Obama (2009–2017). His administration was marred by a frenzy of opaque economic regulations; raw favoritism for some business interests over others; politicization of law enforcement; and massive, inscrutable statutes of questionable constitutionality. Among those statutes were the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Moreover, Obama repeatedly issued executive orders punching holes in federal statutes addressing drugs, immigration, and health care. As noted in Part I, this conduct violates a core principle of Anglo-American constitutionalism.
As the cases of Trump, Clinton, and Andrew Warren all illustrate, another aspect of the decline has been the biasing of the law enforcement process. In 2012, the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act—reaffirming traditional one man/one woman marriage—was pending before the Supreme Court. Attorneys general are obligated to defend the laws enacted by their legislatures, but Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, refused to do so. In fact, he joined the opposition.
Other attorneys general and prosecutors followed Holder’s sordid example. Another miscreant was Roy Cooper, then attorney general of North Carolina, who refused to defend his state constitution’s “one man/one woman” rule. This may well have contributed to the 2015 Supreme Court decision, which on markedly weak reasoning, narrowly struck down traditional marriage rules such as North Carolina’s (pdf).
Prosecutors responded to the highly destructive Black Lives Matter/Antifa rioters with indulgence, but savagely to the less-destructive Capitol Hill riot. While prosecutors have been unrelenting in their pursuit of Trump associates, they showed no interest in enforcing federal law against leftist protesters harassing Republican-appointed (and only Republican-appointed) Supreme Court justices (pdf).
Congress has also participated in the trend: As I have documented in other essays, the Senate’s conduct of the Trump impeachment trials and the House’s conduct of its Jan. 6 hearings disregarded basic standards of fairness and due process.
While most of the responsibility for the breakdown in the rule of law is chargeable to the left, the record of the Trump administration was not spotless either. In my previous essay, I mentioned the case of the legally dubious transfer of military funds to the construction of the border wall. Another illustration was the mass intrusion, during the COVID-19 pandemic, of the federal government into public health law—a subject the Constitution clearly assigns to the states.
Gov. DeSantis’s Contribution
As a political issue, the rule of law often has less traction than some other issues. Some voters find it hard to appreciate that people they disagree with are entitled to fair and impartial treatment. Moreover, once a faction obtains power, it’s tempted to disregard legal standards when striking back at opponents. This is particularly true if those opponents previously violated the rule of law to attack the now-triumphant faction. This cycle of strike and counter-strike is, indeed, a vicious one.
In such circumstances, one mark of the leader-statesman (as opposed to the typical politician) is that he makes an effort to educate the public on crucial issues it might not otherwise understand.
DeSantis has just helped educate us on the rule of law. For that he deserves our gratitude.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Robert G. Natelson, a former constitutional law professor, is senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver.