I must confess that when I hear someone say that a legal case was decided “on a technicality,” my blood pressure goes up. I understand that it often appears at first glance that a “nitpicking rule,” or procedure, should not affect the outcome when a decision on the merits of the matter seems preferable and more just.

But a quick look at history— indeed, a quick look at the history of the present moment around the world— reveals that procedural justice is not a nuisance invented by lawyers and ivory tower academics. The truth is that procedural justice is at the very heart of the rule of law and thus is essential to freedom, fairness, and democracy.

No system of justice can operate properly if the rules of the game are not fair and do not apply equally to everyone, regardless of their political orientation or views of myriad subjects.

The bad guys deserve precisely the same level of protection as the good guys. The whole point of the rule of law is that everyone is operating pursuant to the same rules, rules which are fair, logical, and known to all participants. The unbiased application of legal norms and rules—rules of procedure, rules of evidence, rules relating to the suppression of illegally seized evidence, and many others—is essential to ensure fair outcomes. Our country has always prided itself on the principal that all who enter the legal system will begin at the same starting line.

Let me take a common hypothetical example of how the importance of “legal technicalities” can be misunderstood.  

Police arrest an individual, let’s call him Mr. Drugdealer, and charge him with a crime. The  principal evidence of guilt is a bag of cocaine seized from the defendant’s residence. The defense files a motion seeking to prevent the use of the drugs at trial on the grounds that they were illegally seized in violation of the United States Constitution.

Following a hearing, a judge agrees with the defendant’s argument, suppresses the use of the cocaine by the state, and the state, lacking evidence, dismisses the case. The local newspaper predictably editorializes that it is travesty that Mr. Drugdealer walked away unscathed in the face of obvious guilt “due to a legal technicality,” and that the judge should be removed from the bench. After all, isn’t it 100 percent clear that the defendant is guilty?

In this case, the “legal technicality was the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states in part: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”  

Rather than lament the outcome, I believe it should be celebrated as a sign that the restrictions placed on the state by the Constitution are being honored and fairly applied.

What the newspaper failed to appreciate in this case is that while prosecuting criminals is a very important goal of society, it is not the only very important value at stake. The opposing value, expressed in the United States Constitution and state constitutions as well, is ensuring the privacy of people and the sanctity of their residence, and place limits on the police authorities. I remember a former law professor of mine who once stated that what some people called “legal technicalities” should really be viewed as “tiny constitutions,” designed to protect the rights of everyone, no matter their status in society.

The Founding Fathers, veterans of the Revolutionary War, understood what it meant to live in a society in which state power is unrestrained. They had lived under British rule, enduring “taxation without representation,” being forced to quarter troops in their homes, and various other indignities. The Constitution they drafted is largely premised on the proposition that a healthy dose of distrust of government power is a good and necessary thing.

So it is no accident that one of the first things totalitarian leaders do is change the “technical rules” to their own advantage, or abolish laws and procedures that stand in their way. The new rules they create may give an outward appearance of fairness, but they are a fraud.  They are designed to strip the opposition of its rights and to ensure that “enemies of the state” are crushed.

The next time you hear someone complain about a “legal technicality,” please hesitate before you assume that the system has malfunctioned. Consider the possibility that the “legal technicality” should not be viewed as a nuisance, but as an essential ingredient in ensuring fair play, equal justice, and protection of the rule of law.

Without “legal technicalities,” democracy cannot exist. Without “legal technicalities,” and people who understand the essential role they play, our glorious experiment in freedom will be in mortal danger.