Editor's note: This is one in a series of columns written by members of the Hernando County Bar Association to commemorate Law Week 2008. The theme this year is "The rule of law: Foundation for communities of opportunity and equity.''
"When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society" — Pope John Paul II
I have often heard the term "freedom isn't free." Throughout the history of our country many brave men and women have given their lives in defense of our freedom. When reflecting on these words, one also might argue that the rule of law and abidance to that notion is the sacrifice that we all make to live as free people.
What is meant by this contention at a basic fundamental level is that we are a nation of laws. Self-governance promotes the concept that we, as dutiful citizens, must abide by the laws we set, and further, actively participate in the process to work to change unjust laws.
These concepts have great meaning during Law Week, as we consider the theme of Law Week, "The rule of law: Foundation for communities of opportunity and equity." Our country is based on the idea that, as free men and women, we come together to live in a free society, and we must abide by laws. The rule of law, however, can only be upheld when those laws are open and known and when they are administered and enforced with strict adherence to the concept of due process.
Understanding the rule of law is easiest when one thinks of countries where it has broken down. The breakdown of society is evident when there is no adherence to a common, open and equally enforced set of laws. Our Constitution guarantees the principle of equal protection and due process under the law.
This principle is carried out in the concept of our three branches of government: the executive branch, legislative branch and judicial branch. The judicial branch of our government is charged with enforcing and interpreting the laws that govern us. Everyday citizens are involved in the judicial process by having civil disputes resolved, asserting rights guaranteed to them by our laws that they feel have been violated by another and, yes, defending criminal charges.
Unfortunately our judiciary has become overburdened due to the lack of appropriate funding. Some also might argue that our citizens' lack of adherence to the rule of law is a primary reason that our judiciary has become overburdened. Recognizing that we must adhere to the rule of law means we also must abide by a common moral code, which underlies the basic concept of our laws.
The breakdown of the rule of law results when people commit crimes or frauds on others. It occurs when laws are not fairly enforced with blind regard toward one's race, religion, sex, disability or age, and it occurs when our judiciary lacks the funding it needs to carry out its essential tasks in our society.
We are charged with the task of not only abiding by the laws that we are governed by, but also by participating in the political process and by speaking out when we see potential breakdowns in the rule of law. Only then can we ensure that the rule of law in this great country will continue to provide the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity.
Sean E. Hengesbach is an attorney with the law firm of Delzer, Coulter, Hengesbach & Bell P.A. and practices in the area of wills, trusts and estate planning. He is a native of Hernando County and vice president of the Hernando County Bar Association.