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Words of law is a regular feature of Massachusetts Law Updates, highlighting a particular word or phrase and its meaning in law.

Today’s phrase is rule of law.

rule of law. (18c) 1. A substantive legal principle <under the rule of law known as respondeat superior, the employer is answerable for all wrongs committed by an employee in the course of the employment>. 2. The supremacy of regular as opposed to arbitrary power; the absence of any arbitrary power on the part of the government <citizens must respect the rule of law>. –Also termed supremacy of law. 3. the doctrine that every person is subject to the ordinary law within the jurisdiction; the equal subordination of all citizens and classes to the ordinary law of the land <all persons within the United States are within the American rule of law>. 4. The doctrine that general constitutional principles are the result of judicial decisions determining the rights of private individuals in the courts <under the rule of law, Supreme Court caselaw makes up the bulk of what we call “constitutional law”>. 5. Loosely, a legal ruling; a ruling on a point of law <the ratio decidendi of a case is any rule of law reached by the judge as a necessary step in the decision>.

“…there are in fact two versions of the rule of law, a modest version of adhering to the rules and a more lofty ideal that incorporates criteria of justice. We shuffle back and forth between them because we are unsure of the import of the term ‘law’ in the expression ‘rule of law.'” – George P. Fletcher, Basic Concepts of Legal Thought 11 (1996).”

 –  Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th ed., Bryan A. Garner, Editor in Chief, Thomson Reuters, 2014.

In drafting the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams defined what he meant by the rule of law, in attempting to create a government “to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.” (Part the First, “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Article XXX.)

“Articulating a common language of justice for the United Nations”, from a Report of Secretary-General (Kofi Atta Annan), defines “rule of law” as “a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.”

 –  What is the Rule of Law? – United Nations and the Rule of Law

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