Attorney General Merrick Garland

The Rule of Law and Democracy

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Administers the Oath of Allegiance and Delivers Congratulatory Remarks at Ellis Island Ceremony in Celebration of Constitution Week and Citizenship Day

New York, NY ~ Saturday, September 17, 2022

Remarks from Choose Democracy Now’s Dale Anderson:

On September 17, Attorney General Merrick Garland gave an important speech regarding the Rule of Law and Democracy. It was delivered on Ellis Island in front of 200 new citizens as part of celebration of Constitution Week and Citizenship Day. His comments are particularly cogent at this moment in our history when our Rule of Law is being severely tested by the ex-president.

The Rule of Law is frequently considered one of three pillars of democracy along with “free-and-fair” elections and the protection of certain citizen freedoms and rights (see schematic below). Beyond these three pillars, Stanford Professor Larry Diamond states we also need an independent judicial system to uphold the rule of law principle; trustworthy law enforcement institutions; other institutions to monitor and check high government corruption; and a lively civil society made up of independent institutions such as civic organizations, social movements, universities and publications.

In a blog post in August 2021, Claire Gardner (William & Mary Law School) wrote:

“The Rule of Law is a millennia old principal referring to the way by which states are governed. As compared with Rule by Law, where the government uses the law to govern and is considered to be above the law, Rule of Law means that all entities, including the government, must adhere to the supremacy of the law. The Rule of Law is a nearly a universal value, and the United Nations General Assembly regularly identifies “human rights, the rule of law and democracy” as universal and indivisible values of the United Nations. . . .”

“Democratic stability depends on the self-enforcing equilibrium of the Rule of Law, which is often inherently vulnerable. The viability of the Rule of Law ultimately depends on the citizens: if they elect leaders who will violate the Rule of Law, the Rule of Law will decline rapidly.”

The Global Assault on Democracy
The Global Assault on Democracy

Merrick B. Garland’s Speech

It is my great honor to welcome you as the newest citizens of the United States of America. Congratulations! Please be seated.

Just now, each of you took an oath of allegiance to the United States. In so doing, you took your place alongside generations who came before you, many through this very building, seeking protection, freedom, and opportunity.

This country – your country – wholeheartedly welcomes you.

I know that you have made sacrifices in order to be here today. You should be proud of all you have accomplished. I am proud of you. You have made the decision to become Americans not only at an important time in our country’s history, but on an important day.

It was 235 years ago on this day, September 17, 1787, that 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention representing 12 states signed their names to the Constitution of the United States. Like you, those who signed the Constitution were relatively new Americans. In fact, America had only existed for 11 years at that point. Like you, those Americans had great hopes for their own future – and for the future of their new country.

In the preamble of the Constitution, those Americans enumerated those hopes: to form a more perfect union; establish justice; ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare …

And importantly – in their words – “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Like them, each of you has now made a commitment not only to this nation and your fellow Americans, but to the generations of Americans who will come after you. In that commitment, you have given your posterity – and the posterity of all of us – a precious gift.

I know how valuable that gift is because it is the same one my grandparents gave my family and me. I come from a family of immigrants who fled religious persecution early in the 20th Century and sought refuge here in the United States. Some of my family entered right here, at Ellis Island. My grandmother was one of five children born in what is now Belarus. Three made it to the United States, including my grandmother who came through the Port of Baltimore.

Two did not make it. Those two were killed in the Holocaust.

If not for America, there is little doubt that the same would have happened to my grandmother. But this country took her in. And under the protection of our laws, she was able to live without fear of persecution. I am also married to the daughter of an immigrant who came through the Port of New York in 1938. Shortly after Hitler’s army entered Austria that year, my wife’s mother escaped to the United States. Under the protection of our laws, she too, was able to live without fear of persecution. That protection is what distinguishes America from so many other countries. The protection of law – the Rule of Law – is the foundation of our system of government. 

  • The Rule of Law means that the same laws apply to all of us, regardless of whether we are this country’s newest citizens or whether our [families] have been here for generations.
  • The Rule of Law means that the law treats each of us alike: there is not one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; a rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one’s race or ethnicity or country of origin.
  • The Rule of Law means that we are all protected in the exercise of our civil rights; in our freedom to worship and think as we please; and in the peaceful expression of our opinions, our beliefs, and our ideas. Of course, we still have work to do to make a more perfect union. Although the Rule of Law has always been our guiding light, we have not always been faithful to it.
  • The Rule of Law is not assured. It is fragile. It demands constant effort and vigilance.

The responsibility to ensure the Rule of Law is and has been the duty of every generation in our country’s history. It is now your duty as well. And it is one that is especially urgent today at a time of intense polarization in America.

The United States is no stranger to what our Founders called the risk of faction. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote about it in the Federalist Papers. George Washington warned against it in his Farewell Address. Overcoming the current polarization in our public life is, and will continue to be, a difficult task. But we cannot overcome it by ignoring it. We must address the fractures in our society with honesty, with humility, and with respect for the Rule of Law.

This demands that we tolerate peaceful disagreement with one another on issues of politics and policy. It demands that we listen to each other, even when we disagree. And it demands that we reject violence and threats of violence that endanger each other and endanger our democracy. We must not allow the fractures between us to fracture our democracy. We are all in this together. We are all Americans.

On this historic day and in this historic place, let us make a promise that each of us will protect each other and our democracy. 

That we will honor and defend our Constitution.

  • That we will recognize and respect the dignity of our fellow Americans.
  • That we will uphold the Rule of Law and seek to make real the promise of equal justice under law.
  • That we will do what is right, even if that means doing what is difficult.

And that we will do these things not only for ourselves, but for the generations of Americans who will come after us.

I have often thought about what members of my family felt as they came through buildings like this. And I have often thought about what their decisions meant for my own life.

My family story is what motivated me to choose a career in public service. I wanted to repay my country for taking my family in when they had nowhere else to go. I wanted to repay the debt my family owes this country for our very lives.

My family members who immigrated here have now long since passed. I regret that I cannot express to them how grateful I am for the gift they gave me in choosing to come to this country.

So let me thank each of you. Thank you for choosing America as your home. Thank you for the courage, dedication and work that has brought you here. Thank you for all you will do to help our country live up to its highest ideals. Thank you on behalf of a nation that is fortunate to call you as its citizens.

And thank you upon on behalf of the generations of Americans who will come after you. Thank you.