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Turning Point

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy used a familiar forum at the ABA Annual Meeting to sound a warning that democratic rule of law principles may be losing ground in an increasingly stormy global climate.

Kennedy was the keynote speaker at the opening assembly, the primary official event of the annual meeting, for the third time since joining the Supreme Court in 1988. His previous addresses to the opening assembly were in 1997 and 2003.

“I sense that we are at another turning point in the history of the law,” Kennedy said after tying the evolution of rule of law principles to the growth of civilization. In the world today, he suggested, different visions of law and government are competing for public acceptance, especially in the developing world.

Kennedy also described three essential characteristics that define what the rule of law means in a democratic society.

First, he said, the law should be binding on government and all its officials as a way of preventing corruption and abuse of power.

Second, the law must respect the dignity, quality and rights of every person, and all people should have the right to participate in government “as a way of determining our own destiny. The rule of law must be coupled with the right to improve human existence.”

And third, every person should have the right to know what the laws are and be able to invoke them without fear of retribution.

Without getting specific, Kennedy said developing regions of the world are primary battlegrounds over rule of law principles. In the context of that debate, he said, it is imperative that democratic societies link rule of law principles to real opportunities for people to improve their conditions.

“We must explain the rule of law to a doubting world where the jury is still out,” Kennedy said. “You can do this. You must do this. Your freedom and the freedom of the next generation hangs in the balance.”

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