A Nation of Laws… NOT
You hear it often on news and political talk shows. America is a nation of laws, not a nation of men. The law is supreme. No one is above the law.
I am not sure where this erroneous idea started from. Maybe we can blame John Adams and his proposals for the Massachusetts Constitution.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, is credited with this saying: “(The US is) a government of laws, not of men.”
To put it in context, he wrote: “In the government of this Commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: The judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.”
Perhaps a more accurate description of the reality of the US system would be a quote attributed to Frank Zappa, another political philosopher of more recent times. He said: “The United States is a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced.”
The idea that “laws” are somehow immune from the manipulation of “men” is absurd. Every law ever written was written by men or women.
The Code of Hammurabi was not handed down by god. The good king simply wanted to put to rest any ambiguity regarding how his domain was going to be run. If you construct a building and it collapses on someone, you die. If you kill a man, you die. Well, there were a few exceptions. If the man or woman you killed happened to be the slave of another, well, then you pay a fine. Same with the building. So, the law had a few loopholes. No man was above the law… except those who could afford to be.
My, how things have changed.
We have seen that history is replete with lawbreakers who were not above the law. Jews in Nazi Germany were not above the law. Nor were dissidents in Stalin’s Russia. Or political opponents in Putin’s Russia. The blacks who dared sit at a whites-only counter in Alabama or urinate in the wrong bathroom in Florida were certainly not above the law. Nor,evidently, are 10 yer old rape victims. Criminals all.
But unjust laws are still laws. And those who interpret the laws are still men and women with individual political , financial, religious and social ideas and beliefs. There has never been and never will be “impartial” arbiters of the law.
When I taught government class the students would often wonder what a certain amendment of the Constitution or a specific law meant. What were the parameters of behavior? My response, seen by some as cynical, I do believe is accurate.
I would say something like this: In the end the law (and Constitution) mean exactly what 5 members (of a nine member Supreme court) say it means. No more, no less. And each of these nine members, although they would deny it, has a strong political philosophy. An ax to grind, as it were. They are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between.
They pal around with wealthy benefactors or speak at civil rights seminars. They accept gifts, sometimes hidden as business deals. They love the adoration of the like-minded. No matter what their political philosophy, their worldview is slanted.
The Supreme Court, like other institutions of government , is and always has been a political body. While they attempt to display an “independence” of thought, the facts and decisions they make speak otherwise. Members of the court have always had “skin in the game” .
One need only look at some of the decisions made over time. Dred Scott. Plessy v Ferguson. Brown v Board of Education. Miranda v Arizona. Citizens United. Roe v Wade. Dobbs.
IF the court was truly an “impartial” arbiter of the law there would be very few important decisions that were not 9-0. After all, impartial arbiters should certainly come to the same conclusions based on the facts and law. The reality is that 5 people have always held immense power.
We are not a nation of laws, we are a nation of 5. Five men and women who, contrary to the hopes of John Adams, make the laws. They legislate. They are above the law.
The only way to change the system is to recognize the politics of it. No nation , no matter what the propagandists and apologists claim, has ever been a nation of laws. The USA is no exception. Until we admit that, we are doomed to being governed under the political and religious doctrine of 5 people.