When people who abide by the law are punished and penalized — singled out for retribution and retaliation — why would anybody be inclined obey those laws? 

That is a question all Americans should be asking themselves after government officials were punished for complying with subpoenas lawfully issued by Congress. We also should be questioning why those who chose to ignore similar subpoenas escaped retribution.

If any civilian chose to ignore a congressional subpoena or summons issued by judge or an officer of a court commanding an appearance before a judicial body, failure to comply with the order would draw a swift and certain rebuke. That would be expected in a nation of laws, where their value is placed on legal certainty of what is expected, required, permitted or prohibited. 

That legal certainty vanishes when those who swore an oath before God to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, comply with lawful subpoenas and testify truthfully — there was no claim of privilege asserted on behalf of anyone. Faith in the rule of law fades further when those charged with enforcement fail to do so impartially and consistently. 

Alistair Price, a member of the law faculty at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, opined about the importance of the rule of law and what happens when it breaks down. He imagined how social constructs would crumble as a government that administers justice unfairly and inconsistently: Officials systematically disobey court orders, threaten judges, offer or accept bribes, use the law to reward friends and punish enemies, and throttle those who expose corruption.

The rule of law requires more than questioning that which is wrong; it requires action and sometimes dissent. When courage is demonstrated, those who agree must stand in solidarity so that act counts for something more.

Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the "right to a free, fair and fully informed self-government," offers some guidance about how the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law can be used to "protect our democracy from those who would do it harm."

Every effort must be made to ensure free, fair and regular elections, which are "the cornerstone of the American experiment." Any attempt to suppress participation or exaggerate the prevalence of fraud must be beaten back.

Steps must be taken to halt the flow of disinformation and ensure that government officials are held accountable to facts that can be verified and proven. Autocrats seek to avoid accountability by undermining the truth, which undermines the ability of self-governance and self-determination.

Americans must strive to maintain the ideals of the nation's founding principles: all people are created equal regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. We cannot tolerate those who want to lead this nation to use identity in a way that would divide it.

A strong system of checks and balances must be maintained, with three independent branches of government to ensure American democracy remains vibrant. Only those who subscribe to that principle should be elected to office. 

A strong democracy requires an alert electorate and vibrant dissent when necessary. 

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix. 

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