Claire Finkelstein spoke to a crowd of about 40 people at Smith College on Monday, discussing how recent presidents have ignored the rule of law to increase the power of the executive branch.
Finkelstein is the Algernon Biddle professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote and protect the rule of law in America and internationally.
The lecture, entitled “Is the U.S. Becoming a Constitutional Dictatorship? Executive Authority and the Rule of Law in the Age of Trump,” was sponsored by the Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute at Smith College, an organization that seeks to promote collaboration between faculty, students and experts on broad research projects.
Finkelstein’s main argument contended that presidents in the post-9/11 era have sought to gain power through ignoring the rule of law in the name of safety for American citizens. Finkelstein defined the rule of law as a concept where the control over power in a country comes from a set of laws rather than an individual or a group.
“The law is supposed to constrain what we do, and we are not adhering to the rule of law and acting according to rule of law values,” Finkelstein said.
“I’ll claim that is exactly what happened immediately following 9/11,” she added.
Finkelstein cited multiple examples of a rise in executive power in the aftermath of 9/11, such as George W. Bush’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques in Guantanamo Bay, and Donald Trump’s attempts to impose a travel ban on immigrants from certain nations.
Finkelstein also argued that President Barack Obama did not prosecute operators of enhanced interrogation techniques under the order of Bush in order to use the same justification for his own use of drone strikes on suspected terrorists.
In addition, Finkelstein related her claims of the disregard of the rule of law by the executive branch to Trump.
“The lack of moral character of the president, as well as a number of the officials with whom he has surrounded himself, have had a corrosive effect on public faith that law will be perceived by public leaders as a constraint,” she said.
Throughout her lecture, Finkelstein continually emphasized the importance of laws constraining the powers of members of the government.
“The willingness of political leaders to be constrained by law is an essential feature of law,” she said.
Following the lecture, Karen Remmler, a professor of German studies at Mount Holyoke College and an attendee of the lecture, said Finkelstein addressed crucial ideas on executive power.
“I thought it raised important points about the current administration, and also raised the question of how do we, as citizens, address violations or overuse of executive power,” she said.
John Harding, a lawyer for the state of New Hampshire, saw many implications of the lecture in his own work.
“[Finkelstein] presented viewpoints, arguments and facts that I really hadn’t encountered before presented in that way, so this was a fascinating lecture for me to hear, whether it was me just as a regular citizen or me as a lawyer,” he said.
Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected]