Saturday, March 25, 2006

Chief Justice Roberts: Freedom and the rule of law

Freedom inextricably linked to the rule of law

Today I listened to a speech by Chief Justice Roberts, given on 3-08-06 at the Reagan Library. Roberts was quiet in his style, but instructive…and, at times moving in his words. Here are several nuggets from the speech. Note: This is not a transcript; just my post facto remembering and writing of his words, with a few of my thoughts added in. I trust the each reader will have the brainpower to know the difference, lol! :-)

Roberts said the thing that impressed him the most about Ronald Reagan was that Reagan unalterably believed that freedom is linked to the rule of law. Reagan defined freedom as freedom under the law; in other words, justice as the foundation of freedom. Roberts gave several examples of this, but by now he had my attention. Why?

Because this is a classical definition of freedom!

In a personal sense, Judeo-Christian revelation defines freedom as the power to do what is right. In other words, we are free as we do right [personally]. J-C revelation makes this same principle national, teaching that only the people who do right will be governed rightly.

Roberts talked about the role that the independent judiciary plays in defending the true ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ – how this is underpinned necessarily by the rule of law.

He talked about how difficult it was to build democracy when there was not a model – ever – in which the people followed a law that transcended State, with an independent judiciary.

I don’t think he mentioned Iraq by name, but the implication was there. Building democracy, he said, would be built brick by painful brick as an independent judiciary is built; and as the people learn that freedom is related to rule of law – and not just release from a dictator, or a new ability to do more things.

An independent judiciary assumes the rule of law, above State and for the people. This is a fount of freedom. And it is a novelty, for many people and countries.

Roberts went on to talk about judicial exchange, where judges travel to different countries, to interact and discuss judicial philosophy and practice. Since the point of these discussions is education and [hopefully] justice, sometimes the exchanges are sharp – irenic, but pointed.

He mentioned a time where a Russian judge pointedly asked him [through a translator]: “Is there ever a time when you rule against the government?” Roberts said that on the court of appeals he served, they ruled against the government three times before breakfast just to get warmed up [laughter]. That’s not the language he used in reply to this Russian judge, but he did express that yes, many times they ruled against the government. The law was larger than the government. The government serves the law, which serves the people. Again, quite the miracle of the American Republic [note: not raw democracy, but a true republic]! Roberts talked of this man’s response to ‘ruling against the government,’ and how American government is amenable to the law. This man was surprised, because his government, in practice, placed itself above the law and judicatory.

Another anecdote Roberts gave was quite illuminating on several levels.

This exchange occurred somewhere in Western Europe [specific names weren’t mentioned to protect the innocent, lol], when a Russian judge visited with a group of Western European judges. The judges asked him, “What judicial model are you using?” He replied, “Why, the American model, of course.”

They didn’t much like this answer. And one of them said snidely, “If all you wanted was a can of Coke, you didn’t have to come to Western Europe to get it.”

The Russian judge quietly received this. Then he looked them full in the eye and said strongly, “Sorry, I don’t much like Coke.” “I like my wine French, I like my beer German, I like my Vodka Russian…and I like my judicial institutions American.”

They got the point.

And it is a powerful example of what sets America apart. The rule of law is the foundation of freedom. This is an undeniable claim of Judeo-Christian revelation, a J-C foundational truth. And only in places where Judaism or Christianity touched is this concept now practiced.

It is an incredible gift.

And it’s one reason, for example, why a letter from the U.S. Congress asking India’s Prime Minister to take action against indigenous religious persecution carries such weight.

It’s one reason why America is a place where immigrants tear down the doors to get into. Conversely, it’s one reason that America is a place that dictators and totalitarian regimes hate.

But I’ll take the good with the bad…and also the responsibility that entails, to keep our country grounded in a proper definition of freedom. For once we lose the reality of person freedom under a transcendent Law, we will eventually lose the gift of freedom under the rule of law.

And when that light is extinguished in our world, behold! what manner of darkness!

In these words are a lesson, and a powerful obligation:

“I like my wine French, I like my beer German, I like my Vodka Russian…and I like my judicial institutions American.”

God grant we keep them that way, and accept the law that brings freedom in our personal lives.

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