Tell the class you’ll be creating a working definition for rule of law, a concept that dates back to antiquity. Begin by asking students to share any ideas and information they have about the rule of law.
Then, share these two quotations from the Magna Carta and Common Sense:
The rule of law was first codified in Western European government in the Magna Carta in 1215, when English nobles demanded that King John’s powers to arbitrarily arrest or imprison them be curtailed. The charter states that even the King had to follow the law:
No free man shall be taken, imprisoned, disseized, outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will he proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and the Law of the Land.
In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, American founding father Thomas Paine wrote that the law itself ought to be more important and more powerful than any individual, including a king:
But where says some is the king of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal of Britain. . . in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.
Discuss together: What do the ideas in these quotations add to your working definition of the rule of law?
Optionally, share the four core principles of the rule of law, as defined by the World Justice Project, which measures respect for rule of law in countries around the world:
- The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
- The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property and certain core human rights.
- The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
- Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.