The Rule of Law

Daniel Cole, Kat Kadian-Baumeyer
  • Author
    Daniel Cole

    Daniel Cole has taught a variety of philosophy and writing classes since 2012. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Kentucky in 2021, his MA in philosophy from Miami University in 2011, and his BA in philosophy from Ball State University in 2008.

  • Instructor
    Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

    Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

What is the rule of law? Learn the rule of law definition, discover where it originated from and how it works in the justice system, and see rule of law examples. Updated: 11/24/2021

Table of Contents


What is the Rule of Law?

What is the rule of law? The rule of law definition holds that government power must be used in accordance with the law rather than the arbitrary wills of officials. In effect, what does the rule of law mean? It means that no one, even the rulers of a society, is above the law. There are four principles of the rule of law:

  • Accountability - This principle holds that rulers can be held accountable for unlawful actions; they can be punished.
  • Open government - This principle holds that the operations of government must be transparent. In other words, decisions are not made in secret from the general population.
  • Just law - This principle holds that the laws must be fair. They cannot favor some persons or groups over others.
  • Accessible and impartial justice - This principle holds that the laws must be widely promulgated (they are well-known) and enforced equally.

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  • 0:07 Rule of Law Defined
  • 1:32 Johnson V. State (1967)
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Rule of Law History

Alexander Hamilton authored the Federalist 78

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton

The notion of a rule of law in the history of the United States was voiced in a variety of places, notably in The Federalist. In The Federalist #78, Alexander Hamilton argues for an independent judiciary. His reasoning is that in order to guard against despotism and arbitrariness, the judicial branch needs to wield neither power nor will. Or in other words, the judiciary cannot make the laws or enforce them. This makes the judiciary powerless. In order to keep the judiciary from being subsumed and abused by the other branches of government, Hamilton proposed that the courts be independent and that appointments to the Supreme Court be permanent. This insulates the judiciary from encroachments by the other branches. The independence of the judiciary serves to maintain a rule of law because it ensures that those who make and enforce the laws are not their own judges and thus cannot put themselves above the law.

More recently, the rule of law was further articulated in the case Johnson v State. The case emerged from the arrest of Harvey Johnson and a friend of his under the charges of vagrancy. In brief, Johnson and his companion had very little money and could not explain their next destination. The supreme court of Florida, and ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States, examined the issues of whether the law itself was too vague, meaning it could be easily abused, and whether the arresting officers performed their due diligence. For instance, just because the defendant had less than a dollar at the time of arrest does not mean that the defendant lacked the means to support himself more generally. The officers had only noted the amount of money Johnson had at the time of the arrest and thus had failed to appropriately follow arresting procedure.

Factors of the Rule of Law

The rule of law's definition states that government officials should operate under the law. Based on this definition, there are several factors that can help measure the extent to which a government realizes the principle of the rule of law.

  • absence of corruption - To what extent do government officials misuse public power for their private gain (for instance, through bribes)?
  • regulatory enforcement - To what extent are laws equally enforced?
  • criminal justice - To what extent are the rights of criminals respected and due process observed.
  • civil justice - To what extent can disputes between private citizens be fairly resolved?
  • fundamental rights - To what extent does the government preserve and protect basic human rights?
  • open government - To what extent does the government share information and attain transparency to its people?
  • constraints on governmental powers
  • order and security - To what extent does the government secure public and private order? To what extent can people reasonably expect to maintain their property?

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the rule of law in simple terms?

In simple terms, the rule of law holds that laws (and not men) rule. This entails that no one is above the law and that the laws are intended to serve the public good rather than private interests.

What is an example of a rule of law?

One example of a rule of law would consist of a member of Congress being censured for breaking the law. This would demonstrate accountability and show that no one is above the law.

What are the 4 rules of law?

The four rules of law are accountability, open government, just law, and accessible and impartial justice. These ensure that government officials are not above the law, that decisions are transparent, that laws are fairly designed, and that the law is impartially enforced.

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