Rule of Law

I’m going to try my best to keep politics out of this discussion. But lately there have been a lot of mentions of the Rule of Law, and I thought it might be a good time to discuss it.

The basic idea behind the Rule of Law is that law rather than people rules a nation. It means that no person in that nation is above or exempt from the law, not even those who create and enforce the law. Although the English phrase was first written around 1500, the concept has been around in many legal systems since long before that. In the Anglo-American legal tradition, the Rule of Law was explicitly recognized in Magna Carta in 1215; this document stated that even the King of England must obey certain laws.

Not all governments have respected the law. For example, when a dictator or autocrat is in power, or when a ruler is considered divine or a representative of divinity, he may will have unchecked power. And even when a governmental system nominally follows the Rule of Law, that promise is only good if someone is willing to enforce it. So if the ruler abuses his powers and those who are charged with controlling him do nothing, the Rule becomes meaningless.

I think it’s clear how all of this applies to us in the modern world, but how is it relevant to you as an author? If you are writing spec fic—especially fantasy or sci fi—you might want to think about the Rule. Does your fictional society respect it? How is it enforced? What happens when a ruler pushes the boundaries?

Defining humanity

Last week I posted about potential plot bunnies when dealing with the undead. This week I’m expanding on the topic a bit.

Under common law, homicide is defined as the unlawful taking of a human life. While seemingly simple, that definition has occasionally led to some interesting legal questions. For example, is an unborn baby “human”? At common law, the answer was no, but many have argued that at the very least, fetuses that would be viable outside the womb should be considered human.

If you are an author of speculative fiction, I think you could play with this issue in a number of interesting ways. Sure, there’s the undead, such as zombies and vampires. But what about sentient creatures from another planet? What about artificial intelligence—does it achieve humanity when it becomes sentient and self-aware? What if a human is genetically modified? What if so many parts of her are replaced with artificial bits that she’s barely organic? We’re talking an entire warren’s worth of plot bunnies here!

Relatedly, we have the issue of what constitutes “taking of a life.” In reality, this has come up in cases where the victim was brain-dead but still on life support, and when he died many years later from complications related to the initial attack. But again, spec fic offers us interesting questions. What if the victim is resurrected? What if his body is destroyed but his mind or soul—some essence of him—is preserved in some way? What if he’s reincarnated?

I think the world is sorely in need of more spec fic legal procedurals!

Legal doublets

I like the term legal doublet. It sounds like a fancy suit someone might wear to court. Its actual meaning, though, is even more interesting: it’s a legal phrase with two (or more) words that mean the same thing. Here are some examples:

  • cease and desist
  • aid and abet
  • will and testament
  • hue and cry
  • lewd and lascivious
  • give, devise, and bequeath
  • null and void
  • have and hold
  • keep and maintain
  • terms and conditions

What’s the deal? Are lawyers paid by the word? Nope. As with many other things in the U.S. criminal justice system, the explanation goes back to the 11th century and the Norman Conquest.

At the time of the conquest and for a long time afterward, England was not a land with a single language. In fact, three major languages were in use. The common people spoke the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, which evolved into English. The nobility, however, spoke French. And Latin was used by the clergy and educated people, including lawyers. Furthermore, as time passed, the use of language shifted, so French and Latin were used less in official contexts and English was used more.

Clarity is of utmost importance in legal language. So often, in order to make sure the meaning was clear to all, a legal phrase might be written in two or more languages. We can see this well in give (English), devise (French), and bequeath (English again). And in will (English) and testament (Latin).

But there were other uses for doublets as well. Sometimes two very similar words carry different nuances, and a writer wanted to cover all the bases. Breaking and entering is a good example of this. They’re pretty much the same thing, although perhaps a savvy lawyer could argue that a person could break (a window or a lock) without entering (stepping foot on the premises) or, if the door was unlocked, could enter without breaking. Better to include them both. Assault and battery is another example. Technically, assault is putting someone in fear of harmful or offensive contact, whereas battery is the harmful or offensive contact itself. You could have one without the other: the perp could threaten but not carry it out (assault) or the victim could have his back turned and never see the punch coming until the fist hit him (battery). In most cases, though, where you have one, you have the other.

The third reason for legal doublets is simply that they sound nice. They’re a rhetorical device. Raise the hue and cry sounds a lot better than just raise the hue or raise the cry (or, you know, just shout). Law has a rich oral tradition dating back to the time of Socrates, if not further, and lawyers have always wanted to sound good and important and knowledgeable.

As an author, I revel (rejoice, delight, exult, luxuriate, glory) in the linguistic diversity English allows us. Legal doublets are one interesting facet of this diversity.