Preserving a Free Society: Governmental Power and the Rule of Law | Wilson Center
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Preserving a Free Society: Governmental Power and the Rule of Law

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Webcast Recap

The International Bar Association (IBA) is pleased to announce the launch of a six-part series of events featuring former and current senior government officials and other distinguished guests discussing the rule of law, which has become a vital, even existential, issue for societies around the world.

Each panel will bring a mix of perspectives on rule-of-law issues, including precisely what this oft-used phrase means, what its implications are, what practical meaning it has for public citizens and for those in government, and its importance to the institutions, traditions, and durability of free societies.

Presented by the International Bar Association in cooperation with The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Selected Quotes


Homer E. Moyer, Jr.

“The term ‘the rule of law’ is a shorthand phrase, it’s a composite. It is shorthand for a number of basic principles of governance that may or may not be accepted or committed to by different countries. Among the principles most commonly cited are these: first that the powers of government are separated, they’re not concentrated in a single person or single authority. Second that the judiciary is independent and impartial, that the laws are accessible and adopted in a transparent and open fashion that the laws apply equally to all persons and importantly equally to the government itself which is also bound by the law, that the law protects fundamental rights and dignity of all persons. And finally that as public servants, government officials are not corrupt.”

“One of the ways the framers [of the Constitution] sought to prevent governmental abuses was by separating the branches of government…Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers described the judiciary as by far the weakest of the three branches of the government. Yet it is the courts and the judiciary that have the primary responsibility for making sure the government does not overstep its bounds and exceed its legal authority.”

The Honorable Thomas B. Griffith

“One way you can tell if the rule of law is working is if the strong don’t always win. That there’s a sense that it’s the law that governs…To me the most fundamental concept of the rule of law can be reduced to this: might does not make right. There are protections so that sometimes the weak win.”

“It is true that the courts have a responsibility to make certain that other branches of government don’t exceed their power, but that’s also a responsibility each of the branches has for themselves…It is an awesome responsibility, and it is one that the judiciary should take seriously, I think does take seriously. There is possibly no more serious act that the judiciary can undertake than to say to the political representatives of We the People that they’ve done something amiss.”

“The key is that the Constitution, impartially applied, is your primary loyalty. That’s easier for judges to do because there’s a strong ethic surrounding that. There’s a little more of a challenge for people who are associated with partisan affiliations…You just have to see things through a very different lens as a judge.”

Ambassador Carla A. Hills

“I think the laws protect the security and safety of all persons and their property, and [we should] not load up the rule of law with fundamental rights and dignity because my experience is that different countries regard fundamental rights quite differently, and that means they would be likely to say, ‘no thanks,’ if there’s not a definition of fundamental rights that they adhere to.”

“I think the three [branches of] governments—judiciary, executive branch, and the Congress—working together can make one-on-one equal three. Of course in trade it’s indispensable….We’ve worked out the different authority between the executive branch to initiate and the Congressional branch to approve.”

“There are two problems I see. One is the members of our legislative branch don’t know each other. They don’t spend time together, they don’t live next door to each other, they don’t carpool their kids to school—this happened 25 years ago. The other thing is that we’re not informing the American people about the policy issues [and their] pros and cons. The campaigns have become, ‘I don’t like you, and you don’t like me.’ I want them to talk about their trade policy, tax policy, and immigration policy. I don’t think in the past several elections that we’ve gotten that kind of thing. To the contrary, I think that we have misinformed the American public.”

The Honorable George Mitchell, Jr.

“I think it’s a fair definition on its own. I would suggest sharpening the provision which refers to the government itself being bound by the law to include a reference specifically to the ruler or leader of government…I think that principle is important, and I think it continues to be relevant in today’s world. You can see around the world where leaders are essentially exempt from the rule of law and are able to impose their will on society and exempt themselves. Even in recently democratic societies there are trends in that direction.”

“One of the reasons democracy is having such a hard time gaining roots and footholds in portions of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa is that their customs are: if you win an election, you’re in, and if you lose you’re out, or you’re imprisoned, or you’re dead. That is, the right of minorities are not fairly recognized and protected in many societies that purport to be democracies and that’s one of the reasons the systems don’t function. Now we still wrestle with it here—it’s a very difficult question…I think we’re doing well [with this] as a country.”

“I believe that one of the reasons for the lack of compromise [between the branches] has been the use of advanced technology in redrawing congressional district lines after each census…Gerrymandering isn’t new, but for 220 of our 240 years of history, it was county lines and municipal lines…now it’s perfected to the point where you can move a congressman out of his district by moving his house around….Until we can modify the process by which redrawing of the districts occurs, to permit independent entities [to be involved] --- courts possibly and other groups. That won’t remove the politics, but [it] will drain it.”




  • Robert S. Litwak

    Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies


  • Homer E. Moyer, Jr.

    Former appointee in both Democratic and Republican administrations and founder of the CEELI Institute, an independent rule-of-law institute in Prague


  • The Honorable Thomas B. Griffith

    Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (appointed by President George W. Bush); former Chief Legal Officer of the U.S. Senate
  • Ambassador Carla A. Hills

    Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Hills & Company, International Consultants; former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (administration of President Gerald Ford); former United States Trade Representative (administration of President George W. Bush)
  • The Honorable George Mitchell, Jr.

    Former Democratic Senator from Maine and Senate Majority Leader; former Special Envoy for Northern Ireland and for Middle East Peace