The deterioration of the rule of law


It is difficult to choose which is worse. Is this the results of a major new study revealing that the rule of law has deteriorated around the world, including the United States? Or is it the fact that too few pay attention to it?

This image, taken from the criminal complaint, shows a Brian Christopher Mock (center) in an image captured in video carried by a police force on the Western Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6.

© Provided by the Boston Globe
This image, taken from the criminal complaint, shows a Brian Christopher Mock (center) in an image captured in video carried by a police force on the Western Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on January 6.

The rule of law is the foundation of a just society. Fundamentally, it deals with judicial independence, access to the justice system, and other basic human and economic rights that depend on a just system of laws, enforcement, and government accountable to its citizens. This ensures that the government is less subject to corrupting influences and more dedicated to ensuring peace, public safety and security. When the rule of law breaks down, government leaders act for their own economic benefit or to increase their power, and government decisions are made behind closed doors, without any public accountability. Without confidence in the rule of law, a significant portion of the population will believe that the justice system is stacked against them, favoring the powerful and the connected.


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For more than a dozen years, the non-partisan, multinational World Justice Project has published a global rule of law index. The index is based on eight fundamental factors: constraints on government powers; absence of corruption; open government; fundamental rights; order and security; enforcement of regulations; civil justice; and criminal justice. These factors are quantified and distilled in comprehensive surveys of more than 138,000 households in 139 countries and jurisdictions, and include contributions from 4,200 legal practitioners and experts.

The index was first published in 2008, with the aim of providing governments, businesses and others with a means to identify strengths and weaknesses and to develop targeted reforms. To achieve this goal, however, the media must highlight the report so that the public understands the issues and governments can respond. Without such attention, countries could move closer to authoritarian rule.

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The 2021 Index shows that the United States is not immune to significant threats to its rule of law and democratic principles. Overall, the United States fell to 27th place, down from 21st last year. When the results are filtered by region, the United States ranks 20th out of 31 countries included in the European Union, European Free Trade Association and North America grouping.

Since 2016, the United States has seen continued declines in key categories. For example, the index analyzes “constraints on government powers” ​​by analyzing whether, at the individual and institutional levels, government power is limited and accountable, and whether a free and independent press serves as a check on that power. The “absence of corruption” is determined by analyzing three common forms of public corruption: bribery, undue influence and embezzlement of public funds or resources. These declines, along with lower rankings in other key categories such as fundamental rights, criminal justice, and civil justice, are critical indicators of a negative change in core democracy indicators.

A global alarm should be sounded in the face of data showing that three-quarters of countries – representing nearly 85% of the world’s population – have declined their rule of law performance.

Citizens have the right to demand that heads of government be held accountable for the rule of law. They must assess whether those in office are working for those they represent or for themselves.

The rule of law index provides an important model for analyzing the country’s situation and the results should put the United States on high alert. Our rule of law is under attack nationally by the continued fallout from the Big Lie, the attack on the United States Capitol and the lack of trust in government, and the impact is being felt at the level of the United States. State.

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Leaders and civic organizations should examine each state to determine where the rule of law gaps lie and develop a plan for redress and accountability. For example, unsuccessful efforts to overthrow the 2016 presidential election have, in too many states, become successful efforts to suppress the vote. Additionally, individual states intentionally pass unconstitutional laws, such as the Texas abortion ban with its self-defense law enforcement system designed to evade constitutional scrutiny, and incite other states to do the same.

A state-level rule of law index developed by a coalition of nonprofit organizations, could be the wake-up call the country needs to protect our fragile democracy.

The data demands that we pay attention. Our ability to live in a just society demands that we respond.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is a member of the board of directors of Lawyers Defending American Democracy and past president of the Boston Bar Association.

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