Robert’s Rules of Order

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the idea of Robert’s Rules of Order.  They are used by countless civic organizations for meetings.  What is surprising to me, after looking into this a bit, is that there is almost no academic writing about them.  It’s surprising because: (a) they probably wield significant influence over what many folks think about deliberative assemblies; (b) they must reflect a broader understanding about how democracy should work; and (c) I don’t know why they became the gold standard.

I raise this question in part because of something curious in the rules of the Republican National Convention.  The Convention’s default rules are from the House of Representatives.  Convention committee’s, though, use Robert’s Rules of Order.  Why are they different?  And how do those differences matter?  Hard to say, as I don’t know enough about the details of Robert’s Rules.

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6 Responses

  1. Mike Stern says:

    Legislative assemblies tend to use Mason’s Rules for some reason. But if you want to learn about Roberts Rules, you can check out I’m giving them a plug even though they stole my url.

  2. David Walrath says:

    First, English parliamentary law originates from rules of order in the British Parliament. Henry Robert didn’t invent them, and there were manuals for 200 or so years before he wrote his manual.

    Second, most English parliamentary law manuals, including the House Rules (which are based on a parliamentary rule book Thomas Jefferson wrote for the US senate), are similar in the “parliamentary law” parts, and Robert’s Rules is not exceptional in that way.

    What Henry Robert did was note that most small civic groups were not big enough to have their own extensive bylaws, and that existing parliamentary manuals had only some needed organizational rules – the parliamentary law bits (you need a majority vote for this, a 2/3 vote for that, whether a motion allows debate, how to create a committee, order of business, etc.) but not many of the other pieces needed to run an organization. So he wrote a manual that included a lot of extra information (how to call a meeting, types of meetings, boards of directors, etc.) Obviously it became quite popular.

    But many organizations – legislatures, but also many bigger groups who have their own extensive bylaws – don’t use Robert’s; they use one one of the other manuals. Basically they aren’t small local civic groups without their own bylaws. Using Robert’s can be complicated to disentangle from bylaws (and other laws if a government entity), so instead of using that popular hammer for all their carpentry tasks, sometimes they decide to use a more appropriate tool for the job.

    A couple side notes: most groups don’t actually use “Robert’s Rules”, they use variations published more recently. Since the original book is long out of copyright, there are now a number of different Robert’s Rules sources, although editions of the book published by Robert’s daughter-in-law is the most popular (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised). Notable because when people ask “Why not use Robert’s” I sometimes ask “which Robert’s Rules do you mean?”. Also, even though most parliamentary law books are similar, there are differences. I prefer Alice Sturgis’ Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure over Robert’s, mostly because unlike all the variations of Robert’s I have seen, it updates some of the archaic 17th century terms (for example, “Move the Previous Question” because the more comprehensible motion to “Close Debate and Vote immediately”). There are sometimes substantive differences (majority vs. ⅔ vote for something) but they are mostly esoteric.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    My college SF club didn’t use Roberts rules of order. In fact, we had a bylaw stating that anybody who mentioned them was to be ejected from the meeting. And it got enforced, too.

    • Shag from Brookline says:

      Brett, was this enforced by open carry? (It’s clear that Heller (5-4) was not yet in place at your club back then.)

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        No, by being thrown in a snowbank. Though I’ll grant we didn’t conceal violators while carrying them to it, so you’re not entirely wrong.