Book chapter

Emergencies and the Rule of Law (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Despite scholarly disagreements over the meanings of both the rule of law and emergency, there is broad agreement that emergencies often invite and justify departures from the formal requirements and substantive values identified with the rule of law as a normative ideal. It is often argued that strict adherence to existing laws, which are typically enacted during periods of normalcy in order to prevent arbitrary forms of rule associated with tyranny, could inhibit the government's ability to respond quickly and effectively to the often unexpected and extraordinary challenges posed by an emergency such as war or natural disaster. Consequently, the temporary use of extraordinary measures outside the law has been widely accepted both in theory and in practice as long as such measures aim to restore the normal legal and political order. However, understandings of the tension between emergency and the rule of law have undergone a significant shift during the 20th century as emergency powers increasingly get codified into law. The use of extralegal measures that violate the formal and procedural requirements of the rule of law is still considered a dangerous possibility. However, as governments have come to rely increasingly on expansions of power that technically comport with standards of legality to deal with a growing list of situations characterized as emergencies, there is concern that extraordinary exercises of power intended to be temporary are becoming part of the permanent legal and political order.