A Brief History of the Phrase ‘No One Is Above the Law’

“The American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed,” President Biden said after former President Donald J. Trump was convicted last month of falsifying records to cover up a sex scandal.

“No one in this country is above the law,” David Weiss, the special counsel who prosecuted Hunter Biden on gun charges, said after Mr. Biden was convicted this week. “Everyone must be accountable for their actions.”

So, we get it. No one — not even the president’s son or an ex-president — is above the law. The expression has been used by plenty of political figures in recent weeks, including Vice President Kamala Harris (“Donald Trump thinks he is above the law,” she said at a recent campaign event). The phrase “above the law” has appeared in The New York Times 100 times this year alone.

The specific origin of the phrase is not clear, with several people getting credit for pushing it forward.

But as popular as the expression has become, it has been a fundamental principle of democracy for hundreds of years, a history with cameo appearances by King John of England, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and a mysterious individual known only as Z.

For a term used by lawyers, “no one is above the law” seems refreshingly straightforward. Still, it is not so simple as saying “everyone gets treated equally.”

In a monarchy, for example, “the king is likely to enjoy certain prerogatives that no other citizen of the realm can claim,” Thomas W. Merrill, a professor at Columbia Law School, wrote in his article “The Essential Meaning of the Rule of Law” (2022). “But as long as the royal person enjoys only those prerogatives that are authorized by settled law, there is no violation of the rule of law.”

Magna Carta was the seminal document that established the principle of the rule of law in Britain. Written in Latin and issued in 1215, even in translation it doesn’t precisely say “no one is above the law.” But it certainly curbed the power of the king — John — and made clear that his power was not untrammeled. The British Parliament, which owes its existence in part to the document, calls it “the first document to put into writing the principle that the king and his government was not above the law.”

The phrase “above the law” appeared in The Times in 1860, just a few years after the newspaper was founded in 1851.

A lengthy letter to the editor taking the secretary of war, John B. Floyd, to task said, “Strange as it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that in a government at whose very foundations lies the principle that ‘No one is above the law,’ we have a Secretary of War who is virtually above the law which he administers.”

(As was not uncommon at the time, the letter was anonymous. It was enigmatically signed merely with the letter “Z.”)

A.V. Dicey, the British constitutional theorist, is credited with popularizing the broader concept of the rule of law, the notion that everyone is accountable to the same laws. In 1885, he wrote, “Every man, whatever be his rank or condition, is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals.”

President Theodore Roosevelt is also sometimes credited with popularizing the phrase. In his State of the Union Message in 1903, he offered words of support for both management and labor. But he warned that if either side, or any individual, violated the law, the federal government would act.

“No man is above the law, and no man is below it,” he said. “Nor do we ask any man’s permission when we require him to obey it.”

Roosevelt’s tweak of “no one” to “no man,” used also by others, reflects the realities, and casual sexism, of the era. Women would not be guaranteed the right to vote for another 17 years.

The real explosion in the use of the phrase “no one is above the law” in the United States came in the 1960s and especially the 1970s with the revelations of the Watergate scandal and other crimes by the administration of President Richard Nixon.

When Nixon insisted he did not have to release tape recordings that he had made in the Oval Office, claiming executive privilege, the phrase “no one is above the law” was everywhere.

“The President of the United States is not above the law,” his lawyers acknowledged in a lengthy legal brief. He could face justice, they said, “but only after he has been impeached, convicted and removed from office.”

It seemed as if every other opinion article or letter to the editor at the time was rumination on whether Nixon might be “above the law.” In the end, the Supreme Court decided he was not, ruling unanimously that he had to turn over the tapes.

Nixon was unconvinced, telling the interviewer David Frost in 1977, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

The phrase even seems to have inspired a film, though not a Hollywood classic. “Above the Law” (1988) was the debut of the action hero Steven Seagal. The Times ranked it among the “top three or four goofiest bad movies of 1988.”

In the film, Mr. Seagal declares to some unscrupulous C.I.A. agents: “You guys think you’re above the law. Well, you’re not above mine.”

And if Steven Seagal says no one is above the law, well, no one is above the law.

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