The ‘rule of law’ is critical to the strength of our democracy

By Professor Jennifer B. Wriggins
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News

Professor Jennifer WrigginsVice President Mike Pence recently said that Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, was a “tireless champion of … the rule of law,” but the real champions of the rule of law are millions of Americans who strive every day to keep our democracy strong and make it better.

Arpaio is not one of those millions.

Instead, Arpaio, who is a GOP candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake, was found guilty of criminal contempt after a trial in federal court last year for refusing to abide a judge’s order to stop rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants based on their appearance alone. A judge first ordered him to stop the unconstitutional practice in 2011. He continued for six more years.

Despite all this, President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio last August, and the vice president now describes him as a defender of the “rule of law.”

So, what is the rule of law? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “a situation in which the laws of a country are obeyed by everyone.” This brief definition captures the bedrock idea that the laws apply to everyone, whether in public office or not.

The rule of law, however, is much broader than the dictionary definition. It is a set of four basic principles that are much greater than partisan politics. First, it requires government and private entities to be accountable. Second, laws must be clear, applied evenly, and protect fundamental rights. Third, the process of passing, administering and enforcing laws should be accessible, fair and efficient. And fourth, justice must be administered by independent, able and ethical decision makers. These are tough goals to meet, and we often fall sadly short of the ideal.

But these principles are key to having a society that works fairly and democratically. Without the rule of law, there is simply the rule of the strongest. And the rule of the strongest results in government corruption and the withering of democracy.

Over and over again, Arpaio acted as if he was above the law. He is certainly no champion of the rule of law.

Instead, the vice president would be well-served to look at the example provided by millions of Americans — legislators, law enforcement officers, judges, court administrators, government employees and lawyers, to name a few — who work hard every day to make these principles a reality.

When a police officer enforces the law consistently, he is supporting the rule of law. When government investigators do their jobs and bring to light violations of law, they defend the rule of law. When a judge applies the law in the same way to a rich person and a poor person, she is honoring the rule of law. When legislators resist the undue influence of powerful lobbyists with harmful agendas, they promote the rule of law. Fill in the blank with your own examples.

These everyday, often unsung patriots are the true champions of the rule of law. Let’s thank and honor them.

Jennifer Wriggins is a professor at University of Maine School of Law in Portland. These are her views and do not express those of the University of Maine or the University of Maine School of Law. She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.