Dicey's Nightmare: An Essay on the Rule of Law
54 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2019 Last revised: 8 Jul 2019
Date Written: February 13, 2019
The British constitutional lawyer A.V. Dicey argued in the nineteenth century that the common law, as administered by superior courts, better ensured government accountability than did written constitutions. Dicey taught us to focus less on constitutional promises and more on the practical effectiveness of judicial remedies. This Essay builds on Dicey by offering a comparative assessment of military encroachments on the rights of the nation’s citizens during times of war. Rather than comparing British common-law norms to European constitutionalism, as Dicey did, this Essay compares nineteenth-century common law as applied in the courts of the United States to the constitutionally-inflected rules that those courts apply today.
This Essay focuses its comparison on three common-law remedies: habeas to secure release from military detention; trespass to obtain an award of damages for wrongful or abusive military confinement; and tort and contract-based compensation for the military’s destruction or taking of property. The modern Supreme Court has recalibrated each of these common-law regimes and now evaluates the legality of the military’s actions almost exclusively in constitutional terms. As Dicey might have predicted, the shift away from hard-edged common-law rules to open-ended constitutional balancing corresponds to a marked loss of relative remedial effectiveness. This Essay examines some of the factors that have shaped the remedial decline, as reflected in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Ziglar v. Abbasi. It then offers suggestions as to how the Court might keep the infrastructure of rights enforcement in better repair.
Keywords: rule of law, constitutional rights, government accountability
JEL Classification: K10, K19, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation