The “Four Corners of the Law” is a very simple legal concept that seems to escape a lot of people including and especially the judiciary.
The concept is when ruling on a law, you read the piece of paper that the law is written on, and make your decision based on what that paper has written on it. A sheet of paper by normal consequence has four corners, which leads to the term "four corners of the law." You don't read anything into what the law says, you don't ignore what the law says. You also don't look at laws that don't apply in this situation.
A good example of this is one of President Trump's first EO’s (Executive Orders) on what was labeled by the press as a “Muslim Ban.”
To give a little bit of background on this, an EO is an order by the CEO of United States, Inc. to the employees of the Executive Branch, namely his cabinet secretaries and their departments and so on. It is a directive on how he wants things done and that's all an EO is, it's just like a memorandum from the CEO of a company on “this is how we're going to do things.”
Let’s take a look at EO #13769, the first paragraph says this:
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, including the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq., and section 301 of title 3, United States Code, and to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States, it is hereby ordered as follows:
As we pay attention to the U.S.C. (United States Code, the laws of the federal government) cited in the first paragraph, we would see this on page 74:
Pub. L. 102–140, title VI, §610, Oct. 28, 1991, 105 Stat. 832, as amended by Pub. L. 103–416, title II, §219(l)(2), Oct. 25, 1994, 108 Stat. 4317, provided that:(a) The Attorney General shall prescribe regulations under title 5, United States Code, to carry out section 404(b)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act [act June 27, 1952, as amended, set out as a note above], including a delineation of (1) scenarios that constitute an immigration emergency, (2) the process by which the President declares an immigration emergency, (3) the role of the Governor and local officials in requesting a declaration of emergency, (4) a definition of 'assistance as required by the Attorney General', and (5) the process by which States and localities are to be reimbursed. [emphasis mine]
Judge Derrick Watson of the federal district court in Honolulu issued this stay on this EO, based on the “Establishment clause”, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
I’m no legal expert, I’m just a regular guy trying to use the modicum of common sense endowed upon me by my Creator. In EO 13769, I found zero occurrences of either “Muslim” or “Christian.” The word “religion” occurs three times. Here they are, in context:
In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
(b) Upon the resumption of USRAP admissions, the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality. Where necessary and appropriate, the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security shall recommend legislation to the President that would assist with such prioritization.
My point here is Judge Watson did not pay attention to the “four corners of the law.” If he would have read the EO, then the associated U.S.C. quoted in the EO with a fair and unbiased judicial mindset, it would have been plain to see that President Trump had the full and legal authority invested in him by the laws of the United States to order as he did. Thankfully, the Supreme Court did just that and overruled Judge Watson.
If you had done your research into this particular case, you would have seen several things:
- This was a temporary ban on immigration, until better vetting systems were in place.
- Why did we need better vetting systems? The countries that were affected (Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen) lack, for a variety of reasons, the ability of their governments to have proper records on their citizens. If a person wants to immigrate to the United States, the US government wants to know if that person is a regular person looking to better themselves or are they a threat to this US.
- The list of countries was actually developed by the Obama administration, so President Trump was acting on information that was there for him when he came into office.
Let me close with these points:
- The laws should be as few as possible.
- The laws should be written so a common person can read and understand them.
- The laws should be passed by people who are accountable to the people.
Because when, as we have today, more laws than we can count, laws written so complex that even the lawyers and lawmakers cannot understand them and we have just as many “administrative regulations” as we do laws from the Legislature that can bind and punish citizens, the freedom of the common citizen is severely infringed.
I always think of Ulysses S Grant in times like this: “I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”