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Biden’s ‘American exceptionalism’ and the rule of law

My old boss, Vice President Joe Biden, weighed in on “American exceptionalism” during a speech Monday. In subscribing to the idea, the former chairman of both the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees provided the unique perspective that our exceptionalism is particularly demonstrated by our “deep commitment to the rule of law.” I think he’s got a good point. And, I think it’s notable how his view was shaped.

Biden, a lawyer, is as aware as anyone of the importance Americans place on the rule of law at home and abroad. He presided over some of our nation’s most controversial judicial nominations and later, as the Senate’s point man on foreign affairs, met with countless leaders from  different countries, territories and international organizations while pushing President Bill Clinton and the United Nations to punish rulers who flouted the rule of law.

Our own commitment to the rule of law was demonstrated to the world during the 2000 presidential election in which we accepted the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. Without a coup, civil war or violent rioting in the streets, the public and the losing candidate moved beyond the controversy because of respect for the rule of law and the greater good of the nation.

The respect may be especially profound to those entrusted with determining the rule of law in specific cases. It is a topic of Justice Stephen Breyer’s recent book and a favorite subject of Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

When speaking to youth about the judiciary and separation of powers, Bell often laments the court’s status as the weakest branch of government. With the legislature possessing the power of the purse and the executive having the power of the sword, the courts have only the power left to it by the willingness of the public to accept its judgments. The fact that we regularly do is truly exceptional.

Talk of American exceptionalism often seems tinged with arrogance, and this perception can be counterproductive when trying to collaborate with foreign governments. But I think Biden’s perspective gives us something to be very proud about when comparing ourselves to the rest of the world and something both sides of the political spectrum can embrace.

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