What Is the Rule of Law in the US Constitution?

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Rule of Law – US Constitution

The United States Constitution is one of the oldest and most successful constitutions in the world, governing American society for nearly 250 years. Although it has been amended 27 times during its history, the same basic principles laid out in its text still largely govern the country today. One of the biggest reasons for its sustainability over the years is its active establishment of the rule of law, a concept whereby both a government and its citizens are equally held accountable to the country’s laws.

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The rule of law originates from ancient Greece, most famously from Aristotle, who discussed in detail in his work Politics whether it was better to be governed by the best leaders or the best laws. Even though both forms of governance have significant advantages and disadvantages, Aristotle concluded that law is a better option for governance than a single leader, recognizing the long-term effectiveness of written law. The Founding Fathers of the United States gravitated toward this concept, in large part due to their experiences with King George 3, who often abused his power when dealing with the 13 colonies.

When the US Constitution was written, the rule of law was a relatively unpopular concept, as most of the known world during the 18th Century was primarily governed by monarchs. These monarchs exercised the concept of divine right, a philosophy where kings and queens were supposedly given direct authority from God to rule as they saw fit. The rule of law radically diverged from this view, espousing that laws should govern society and that these laws should be publicly accessible, independently arbitrated, and equally enforced. 

Impeachment and Conviction

The concept of the rule of law first occurs under Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution, where the House of Representatives is given the sole power of impeachment. Article 1, Section 3 grants the Senate the authority to try all cases of impeachment, where a two-thirds majority vote is necessary to convict and remove an individual from office. Article 1, Section 3 also denotes that the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court will always preside over all trials in the Senate.

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The Constitution grants the House of Representatives the sole power of impeachment.

Later in Article 2, Section 4, the text specifies the individuals subject to impeachment and trial, namely the president, vice president, and all other civil officers in the US government. Therefore, all officers of the federal government, ranging from federal bureaucrats to members of Congress to the president, are all treated equally under the law. The inclusion of a specific provision for governmental punishment right at the outset of the US Constitution and its broad application to all civil officers exemplifies the Founding Fathers’ firm belief in the rule of law. 

Trial Procedures, Treason, and Investigations 

The US Constitution specifically notes in Article 3, Section 2 that all trials, except those resulting from impeachment by the House of Representatives, are to be decided by a jury in the state the crimes were committed.

6th Amendment

The Sixth Amendment delineates further that the trial must be speedy, prohibiting governmental authorities from jailing individuals indefinitely, and that the jury must be public.

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The 5th Amendment ensures that an individual cannot be charged with the same crime twice.

5th Amendment

In addition, the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution delineates that an individual could not be charged with the same crime twice and could not be forced to testify against themself.

Guidelines For Treason Convictions

Another groundbreaking feature of the US Constitution, further showcasing its adherence to the rule of law, is the specific guidelines for treason convictions. According to Article 3, Section 3, individuals could only be convicted of treason if they confessed in open court or specific evidence of treason was brought against them by two or more witnesses. While Congress was given the authority to determine the punishment for the individual who committed the act of treason, they were prohibited from enacting punishment on the individual’s friends or family if they were not involved in the crime.

4th Amendment

Perhaps the most compelling example of the rule of law in the United States Constitution is the Fourth Amendment. It stipulates that all searches by governmental authorities or law enforcement can only be done with a warrant. All warrants must have probable cause to be issued by legal authority and must specifically layout which places can be searched and what items can be seized. These limits placed on investigatory agencies highlight the constitutional law principle that governmental authorities, in addition to ordinary citizens, must respect the law. 

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