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What Is the Rule of Law?

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One of the key tenets of the rule of law is that no one is above the law.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

What is the “rule of law”?


  • Everyone must follow the law.
  • Leaders must obey the law.
  • Government must obey the law.
  • No one is above the law.

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

Concept of the Rule of Law

The rule of law is a concept with several key tenets that help ensure a fair, civil society. Under the rule of law, laws are publicly promulgated, enforced equally, and adjudicated independently. In other words, everyone understands laws, and everyone must follow them. The law binds people in positions of power and the government in the same way as normal citizens. No one is above the law.

The United Nations definition of the rule of law includes a fourth provision that any system of law is consistent with internationally-recognized human rights. This idea is often implied in United States-centric discussions on the rule of law, but it’s not always explicitly stated.

Public Promulgation

The word “promulgate” is defined as “to make widely known.” In the context of the rule of law, laws being “publicly promulgated” means that anyone can find out what the law is and understand it. These last parts are important, as a society with secret laws or laws too complicated for the public to understand isn’t one governed by the rule of law. As such, it’s necessary for governments to ensure that laws are both simple and accessible.

Equal Enforcement

Under the rule of law, laws must be applied evenly to everyone. While there are countless examples of uneven application of laws throughout the history of the United States, the rule of law concept requires the government to do its best to treat everyone equally under the law.

The constitution, Bill of Rights, and policies adopted by federal and state governments have many protections for people who might otherwise suffer. These provisions include the right to a public defender if you can’t afford a lawyer, the right to a jury of your peers, and methods of removing law-breaking government officials so that they can’t use their influence in government to influence a trial.

Equal enforcement doesn’t just apply to people. Under the equal enforcement idea, the government is also subject to laws. Both private citizens and other government agencies can take legal action against government agencies when they break the law. This serves as an important check that ensures that the government follows its own rules.

An Independent Judiciary

Laws aren’t always crystal clear. Even when they are, a biased government could undermine the rule of law by simply deciding cases in favor of itself. This would bypass the ‘equal enforcement’ part of the rule of law.

“Independently adjudicated” in this case means that the judges who decide what does and does not break the law must be fair and not the same as the people who write laws or the people who prosecute suspected lawbreakers. Having an impartial, independent judge helps to ensure that both sides get to make their case fairly and that there’s no bias towards one side. This ensures that laws are enforced equally and helps ensure government accountability.

The Law Is Supreme

The fundamental principle of the rule of law concept is that government serves laws, not the other way around. Under the rule of law, governmental officials seek to uphold existing legislation and pass new laws that improve the lives of citizens. They do not get to use laws to benefit themselves unfairly, punish their enemies, or help their friends. The law must be equal, impartial, understood by everyone it governs, and cases must be judged fairly.

The History of the Rule of Law


Many American legal practices have their roots in English court practices from before the Revolutionary War, and the rule of law is no exception. The rule of law was a major factor in signing the Magna Carta in 1215. With the Magna Carta, King John, the government of England, agreed to be bound by the law.

In 1260, Henry de Bracton, an English jurist, wrote, “the king himself ought not to be under man but under God, and under the Law, because the Law makes the king.”

Rule of Law in the Constitution

The framers of the constitution attempted to enshrine the core ideas of the rule of law into the document. They created a separate judicial branch, added amendments that guaranteed rights to help ensure equality, and deliberately limited the actions that the federal government could take.

Not only were certain types of laws limited to specific houses of congress, but the federal government was specifically limited to only powers explicitly given to it by the constitution.

By limiting the government, the constitution helps ensure that the government follows the law, rather than the other way around.

American Law and Judicial Review

Marbury vs. Madison, one of the most important decisions of the early United States Supreme Court, established that the courts could review laws and ensure that they complied with the constitution.

The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land, meaning that both the government and other laws are bound by it.

Judicial review allows an independent branch of government to ensure that no law or government agency violates this supreme law, ensuring fair and equal enforcement.

Imperfect Execution

While the rule of law is an honorable ideal, the United States government has not always followed the concept. The practice of slavery was legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

In 1856, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott vs. Sandford upheld this practice, claiming that black Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This decision violates the modern rule of law concept.

Plessy vs. Fergusson and Korematsu vs. United States, two other landmark cases concerning segregation, were also decided in ways that run contrary to the legal principles of the rule of law.

More modern Supreme Court justices have made statements about these decisions, saying that the original verdicts were wrong. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant as a society and work diligently to keep mistakes like these from happening again.

Governments aren’t perfect, and when unjust decisions are reached, we must work within the rule of law to negate those decisions via legal methods.

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