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What is the Rule of Law?

By Jodee Redmond
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the United States and Canada, the rule of law is the principle forming the basis of the justice system. It holds that everyone is equal under the law, and that no one is above the law. Citizens do not have the right to choose which laws they are going to observe and which ones they will ignore. The government is subject to the law of the land as well.

The rule of law is a concept that can be traced to ancient times. Greek philosophers discussed this concept three centuries before the birth of Christ. This concept was favored as a way to avoid abuse of power by those in authority.

When the Magna Carta was signed by King John of England in 1215 AD, he gave certain rights to all free men in the kingdom. This document gave the king's subjects the right to appeal a sentence of wrongful imprisonment. The Magna Carta gave citizens under English rule the right to due process. A person accused of an offense is subject to the law of the land and must be found guilty by a judgment of his or her peers. This concept is related to the rule of law and ensured that those accused of criminal offenses were treated fairly.

Without the principle of the rule of law to guide society, the threat of mob rule exists. The idea of laws being made and enforced by a group of people who are not required to treat everyone equally is not one that fits in with a peaceful society. With the mob rule model, the rights of minorities may not be protected and equity before the law is not practiced.

With the model of the rule of law that is currently in place in the United States, Canada and other countries, people who have less political power have the same rights as other citizens. People involved in working in law enforcement, such as the police and judges, are all subject to the same laws as a member of the public is. The principal of equality under the law protects citizens against discrimination on various grounds.

The U.S. state of Nebraska takes the rule of law very seriously. It has adopted the phrase "equality before the law" as its state motto. The words are included on the state seal.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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