The Rule of Law, theoretically at least, is superior to the arbitrary Rule of Men. For most of human history, the law has been subject to the whim of a head of state be s/he a monarch, czar, dictator, emperor, etc. James Madison and the framers of the U.S. Constitution wisely determined that the document would be the “supreme law of the land” and everyone from the President to the peasant would be subject to the same law.
But what happens to the Rule of Law when the laws become too vague, too numerous, too unpredictable, and too unjust? According to a 2008 Louisiana State University study (referenced in this article), there were over 4,500 federal crimes on the books. This does not include the thousands more regulations that also carry criminal penalties.
So my question to conservatives and some libertarians who have been critical of President Obama’s executive order to allow individuals who were brought illegally across the border as children under the age of 16 to have temporary work permits is as follows: Do you believe that the president should enforce each and every one of the over 27,000 pages of federal code and prosecute everyone who can be accused of any of the 4,500 + crimes? Should the president send uniformed men with guns to raid the Gibson Guitar Corp, dairy farms who sell raw milk to the public, and medical marijuana dispensaries which operate pursuant to state law? If the argument is that the president is shirking his responsibility by picking and choosing the laws he will “faithfully execute,” the answer necessarily must be “yes.”
Obviously, the federal government even as large as it is could not possibly enforce every single federal law. Assuming for a moment the federal government could enforce every single federal law and regulation, as people who claim to value personal liberty above all else, is this something that would in any way be compatible with liberty?
I think not.
When the federal code is so full of laws and regulations, it’s the same as having no Rule of Law at all. The president necessarily must decide which laws to enforce and which to ignore or at the very least prioritize how he will execute the law. As immigration laws go, it seems to me that deporting individuals who were educated here, not criminals, and pay taxes should be a much lower priority to be deported or jailed than someone who as an adult illegally immigrated, stole someone’s identity, and committed a host of other crimes.
Beyond the sheer volume of laws and regulations, I do think there are instances when the president should NOT enforce the law if he, in good faith, believes the law violates the constitution and/or is unjust. Who among us today would argue that when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in force that a president who refused to enforce such a law was acting like a king because he was usurping the “will of the people”? I would also point out that when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land, it wasn’t at all unconstitutional even though most sane Americans today, regardless of political affiliation and/or philosophy would say the law was immoral. If the constitution itself violates Natural Law (i.e. does not recognize the rights of life, liberty, and property for all human beings), then it too should be nullified in those instances.
Nullification presents problems of its own, however. I recognize that nullification of laws passed by congress presents a possible constitutional crisis. We certainly do not want an all-powerful executive branch that can ignore the congress and the courts, so what is the solution?
The solution, however politically difficult it would be, would be to repeal the vast majority of the federal criminal code and much of the remaining 27,000 pages of statutes. The most sensible place to begin would be with the federal criminal code. Most criminal law should be dealt with at the state level anyway. I haven’t checked recently but I’m pretty sure that rape, murder, burglary, assault/battery, and fraud are crimes in all 50 states and in all U.S. territories.
Additionally, even those who believe the war on (some) drugs is good public policy, most states would most likely (unfortunately) continue locking up non-violent drug offenders without Washington’s help. The country we love would not descend into chaos if criminal law was dealt with almost entirely by the states. If we cannot trust the states to handle protecting individuals inside their borders, what is the point of even having states?
If the federal criminal code only dealt with crimes such as counterfeiting, treason, enacting legitimate interstate commerce regulations (to keep the trade among the several states “regular,” not what the interstate commerce clause has become thanks to SCOTUS), and yes, immigration policy, the president could and should conceivably enforce all the federal laws that are neither unconstitutional nor immoral. The president would no longer have the discretion to enforce the laws he favors and not enforce the ones he does not.