Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James W. Skillen


October 29, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(In this column we explore the principles that guide the Center for Public Justice and the ways in which people put principles into practice. For the first few weeks, to provide a quick reference for those who want to know where the Center stands on various issues, we will use edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for The Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

The second of the Center's Guidelines focuses on the task of government. It follows naturally from the first, which is on the nature of the political community in which government bears its responsibility. No society can be sustained or continue to function without a government that can, to some extent, fulfill its limited and accountable purpose to enable citizens to exercise their civic and non-governmental responsibilities.

The first proposition of this guideline should be unproblematic to any American citizen: "The government of a political community bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction. The guiding norm or principle for such laws is public justice."

The legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government serve these three all-embracing purposes—the safety, welfare, and public order for citizens of the political community. One could sum up all three with the phrase "the common good."

The limited purpose and the accountability of government "should be articulated in a basic law or constitution,” whether or not that constitution is a written document. Government should be subject to "the rule of law." Government should not become totalitarian—with its responsibilities unlimited, undefined—nor should it be arbitrary and accountable only to itself. For government to be "under law" "means that it is not authorized to do whatever it wishes, but may exercise its power only within the boundaries of the political community's constitution, laws, and court rulings."

In addition to government's accountability to the constitution and laws, it must also be held accountable by its citizens through means such as "free elections, courts of law, and freedom of speech through independent media and associations." But more than the accountability between government and citizens, "while government and citizens hold one another accountable under the law and to the law, the ultimate accountability of both is to God."

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of human accountability to God. The ultimate sovereign to whom it refers is "the people." At the same time, Americans have traditionally accepted the idea articulated in the Declaration of Independence that certain rights of individuals come from God—that we are endowed by our Creator with such rights. This ambiguity makes it difficult to work out in practice what it means that American public officials are ultimately accountable to God.

Despite the difficulty of doing so, this accountability will have to be demonstrated in the actual laws and functions of government in relation to citizens and society. It will mean doing justice and overcoming injustice by showing in actual practice the difference between them.

Government must do two things to uphold public justice: (1) uphold the common good of the political community in its own right, which includes protecting citizens from domestic and foreign injustice, and (2) recognize in law the non-political responsibilities that belong to those who live in the territory of government's jurisdiction.

Government's fulfillment of its limited purpose will come only through the actions of making laws, enforcing them, and adjudicating them. And in that process, citizens and public officials will be involved in all kinds of ways, heeding different dimensions of what justice demands.

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”