by John Creech
In acknowledgement of MLK day, I wanted to raise the question, based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as to when, if ever, as well as to what extent, it is appropriate to defy the rule of law.
On The Imaginative Conservative Winston Elliott raised the question “When is a Change in Government a Duty”, asking whether the Declaration of Independence’s statement that society has a right, under certain circumstances, to abolish its form of government, would ever apply, despite the Constitution’s amendment provision. In response, Stephen Masty appropriately suggested that preserving the rule of law may limit us to using the amendment provision in bringing about any changes in the form of our government. MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is relevant here because his letter, in part, was meant to allay the fears of his fellow Christian ministers who were concerned about MLK’s and his followers willingness to break laws. Relying on St. Augustine and Aquinas, MLK makes a natural law argument to the effect that there are times when it is appropriate to break the laws.
In his letter, which you can find here, MLK asserts that while one has a legal and moral duty to obey just laws, “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” for, referencing St. Augustine, “an unjust law is no law at all.” MLK refers to Aquinas for the principle that allows one to distinguish between an unjust law and a just one. An unjust law is “a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law,” but a just law is a “man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” Therefore, to the extent our civil law does not conform to the eternal and natural law, MLK appears to conclude that not only may one disobey the law, but even has a duty to do so.
If MKL is correct, then it would appear that there are situations in which we may depart from the rule of law. If so, are we always and forever bound to altering our Constitution through the amendment process itself, or is there a situation in which society may alter or abolish the present form of government in a manner that does not follow the procedures of our Constitution? After all, it seems we have done this before. Although the Articles of Confederation had an amendment provision, we did not merely amend the Articles but replaced them with our current Constitution.
John Creech is a teacher at Western Academy and an attorney, licensed to practice law in Texas. John also has seven years experience in secondary education. Prior to practicing law, he taught English and Latin at St. Thomas High School and St. Pius X High School. Essays by John Creech may be found here.