1974
Devotion to the Rule of Law
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“Devotion to the Rule of Law,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 20–21

Devotion to the Rule of Law

The J. Reuben Clark Law School must always foster an enlightened devotion to the rule of law. A principal function of law, and thus a principal occupation of lawyers, is the prevention and settlement of disputes. Men of law must understand and help others to understand that, despite all the imperfections of law and lawyers, there is no better system for preventing and settling disputes than the rule of law.

Consider the alternatives to the rule of law. Trial by combat was once an accepted means of settling private disputes. This method, where the party with the greatest strength can impose his will, survives for public disputes in the barbarity of war, and for private disputes continues to be used by those whose violent means lie outside the law.

Disputes can also be settled by authority where the government official, the aristocrat, or other person in “high position” is able to impose his will, survives for public disputes in the barbarity of war, and for private disputes the law, but public servants and members of the legal profession are responsible to root it out wherever it appears.

A third alternative for settling disputes is the sleazy system of corruption, where justice is for sale and the person with the largest resources prevails. We must likewise be diligent to eradicate that evil.

The rule of law stands as a wall to protect civilization from the barbarians who would conduct public affairs and settle private disputes by power, position, or corruption rather than by recourse to the impartiality of settled rules of law. Lawyers are the watchmen on that wall.

Devotion to the rule of law means that our preeminent political allegiance is to the law and the offices of government and not to the persons who occupy those offices. President J. Reuben Clark said it best:

“God provided that in this land of liberty, our political allegiance shall run not to individuals, that is, to government officials, no matter how great or how small they may be. Under His plan our allegiance and the only allegiance we owe as citizens or denizens of the United States, runs to our inspired Constitution which God Himself set up. So runs the oath of office of those who participate in government. A certain loyalty we do owe to the office which a man holds, but even here we owe, just by reason of our citizenship, no loyalty to the man himself.” (“America—A Chosen Land of the Lord,” MIA Conference, June 9, 1940.)

There is no democracy among legal rules. Some are more important than others. Thus, some rules are based on eternal principles of right and wrong or on basic tenets of our constitution. Others are rooted in the soil of men’s reasoning, soil that may be washed away by the torrent of human custom or the current of advancing thought, leaving the rule without support or justification.

One who studies law through the lens of the gospel should surely be realistic about the limited longevity of men’s ideas and the consequent short duration of rules and reasons grounded on the shifting sands of current facts and opinions. Of even less standing are those judicial rules based solely on precedents already adrift from the anchorage of reason.

Dallin H. Oaks, president
Brigham Young University
(remarks at opening ceremony of J. Reuben Clark Law School, Aug. 27, 1973)