There is an old proverb about living in “interesting times.” Well, one could easily call 2020 an interesting time. We are only halfway through it too – and we still have the Presidential election in the Fall. The second half of the year will almost certainly be just as interesting as the first half, maybe more so.
This weekend we celebrate the Fourth of July, the day that we issued our Declaration of Independence in 1776. Everyone knows what the Declaration is, but it is worthwhile to go back and read it. The first two paragraphs are instructive:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
The men who met in Philadelphia 244 years ago were imperfect and flawed, just like every human still is. The nation they created at the time was and remains imperfect. Those flaws and imperfections, however, do not diminish the significance of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was - and it remains – the embodiment of our nation’s aspirations.
If one reads the entire Declaration it becomes apparent that it is a pleading, a legal document justifying the case for independence. That is not surprising considering that many of the members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, including the principle author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson. That the case for independence was framed as a legal argument is important. Our nation was founded based on the rule of law.
These days, we hear much about the rule of law. At its most basic level, we are talking about known and reasonable rules applied fairly. The two parts are equally important: The laws – or rules, if you will – must be appropriate, but the process for applying them must be right too. Bad laws, albeit fairly enforced, are not right. Good laws, unfairly or unevenly enforced, are not good either. Nor is a process intended to be fair of much utility if the actual law is not clear.
No one would contend that our laws are perfect or that there are not issues with how they are applied. However, our commitment to the rule of law has enabled significant progress throughout our history. More progress can and will be made, but we cannot forget or set aside our commitment to the rule of law. As a lawyer, I am a total believer in the rule of law. It is the foundation of all freedom – those unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We forget that at our peril.