The Rule of Law

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

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The rule of law refers to the democratic idea that the government can punish people only if there is a specific law that defines a crime and spells out the punishment for committing the crime. This is also called the principle of legality.

The idea of the “rule of law” is fairly vague, and it can take on different meanings in different contexts.  West’s Encyclopedia of American Law makes the helpful distinction between “rule according to law” and “rule under law.”  The authors explain the rule according to law as follows:  “No individual can be ordered by the government to pay civil damages or suffer criminal punishment except in strict accordance with well-established and clearly defined laws and procedures.”  The further explain what is meant by rule under law. “No branch of government is above the law, and no public official may act arbitrarily or unilaterally outside the law.”  We do not give much consideration to the third context, where the “rule of law” means “rule according to a higher law.” Under this doctrine, “no written law may be enforced by the government unless it conforms with certain unwritten, universal principles of fairness, morality, and justice that transcend human legal systems.”  This idea was prominent in Canon Law but lacks much relevance in today’s legal environment that includes the doctrine of separation of church and state.

References and Further Reading

“Rule of Law.” West’s Encyclopedia of American Law. Retrieved September 24, 2018 from

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  04/30/2021

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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