“EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW” – These are the words engraved above the main entrance to the Supreme Court Building. The most recognized legal symbol visible in the architecture of the building is the female figure representing Justice.
Let’s start from the top to the bottom. But first, let’s address why Lady Justice is a lady in the first place.
She’s a lady because she’s, the Roman goddess who was the equivalent of the Greek goddess (actually Titaness) , the personification of “divine order, law, natural law and custom”, as Wikipedia usefully states.
First, the blindfold.
- This symbolizes that justice is “blind”—in other words, justice is supposed to be objective, without bias; never favoring the strong nor the weak, the rich nor the poor, the righteous nor the wicked.
- The fact that the lady cannot see who she is judging means that she does not judge based on appearances, or merely on what her senses tell her. She judges with reason and rationality, as they are the only things that are truly reliable. The senses can be fooled and appearances can be crafted, but the mind, independent of the senses, cannot be tampered with.
- Interestingly, the idea that justice is “blind” only came about in the 15th century or so; early Roman depictions showed Iustitia with scales and sword, but with her eyes uncovered.
Next, the balance, commonly called the Scales of Justice.
- These symbolize that justice fairly takes into account both sides of the story, from the accuser and the accused, or from two parties that make opposing claims. This also symbolizes objectivity, as the verdict that Justice hands out is the result of the “weight” of the evidence presented for or against a claim.
- The scales, according to Wikipedia, date back to the Egyptian goddess , who was also a goddess of justice.
Third, the sword.
- We all know that the sword has traditionally been a symbol of power, but there are a couple of special things about Lady Justice’s sword.
- The first is that it symbolizes the power of Reason instead of any real physical power. This power manifests in the real world as law and, subsequently, the people who enfore the law. It emphasizes that for justice to be carried out and the law enforced, there must be power behind the laws.
- We, the people, give the laws power, because we have agreed as a society that the content of the law is what we desire to be carried out. From there, the “soft” power is translated into real power in the form of law enforcers.
- The second thing about the sword is that it’s double-edged, meaning that Reason can be used for or against anyone as it is impartial and objective. The same argument, the same observation—the same conclusion—can be used to either condemn a man to punishment or save another man in different circumstances.
- Taken all together, there are a few symbolisms of the sword:
- The first is that power must be wielded judiciously. Abusing the power granted to enforce the law is injustice, and indiscriminately swinging the sword will likely harm the people we love just as badly as the people we seek justice against.
- The second, more important symbolism is that power is subservient to justice, and not the other way around. This is symbolized by the fact that Lady Justice is holding the sword. Power is merely a tool to deliver justice and should never be justice itself, as we sadly see in so many places today. Might does not make right.
Finally, the snake that Justice crushes underfoot.
- This isn’t an omnipresent feature in depictions of Justice; it’s likely a post-Christian era addition as there are many depictions of Mary crushing a serpent underfoot.
- The obvious symbolism is that, the snake being a general symbol of evil, justice triumphs over injustice, corruption, bias, and intimidation.
Taken all in all, Lady Justice symbolizes all the ideals that embody the concept of justice. Ideally, true justice should be the impartial application of reason to ensure that all parties receive what they deserve to receive.
Lady Justice’s stoic, stalwart figure reminds us all that justice is not to be confused with kindness, because to give all parties what they deserve may require cruelty and kindness in equal measure, as befits the situation. Justice is also not to be confused with equality; the scales may be balanced at some times and justice may also entail equality, but to give all parties what they deserve may mean taking from some to give to others.
In summary, Lady Justice is ultimately a symbol of neutrality, as justice itself must be neutral to be truly called justice. All of her symbols emphasize that justice should never work in favor of any man, and that the judgments of justice should always be carried out impartially, with the power of Reason and the power of the law, which is Reason codified. She serves as a reminder that the concept of justice is universal and timeless, as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians knew and as we know today.
Lady Justice is a visual representation of the philosophy of law, jurisprudence. The combination of objects she commands when taken together represent the conceptual ideal and goal of justice. She reminds us of its purpose.
When taken in fully, Lady Justice is achieving a remarkable feat of balance. She is able to hold in her left hand a scale which requires complete stillness to measure accurately the weights on either side. In her right hand is a heavy sword requiring strength, swiftness and precision to wield and discipline to keep still. Her left foot stands upon the symbol of corruption in the form of the snake, holding it at bay while her right foot holds steady. All of this is done while blindfolded.
The blindfold holds symbolism that has roots in antiquity, arguably archetypes of culture itself. Those depicted as having great insight or intuition are traditionally depicted as blinded in some way. This gives one the power to see reality through the symbolic “third eye” which penetrates the facades or illusions of life allowing one to see the truth. This is closely linked to the “eye of providence” which appears in American culture on paper money.
The sword and scales are an interesting pair of items that both mirror and oppose one another simultaneously. Both require balance; one requires balance through movement and the other through stillness. The sword divides what it encounters in half while the scales measure the weight of two halves. Notice that Lady Justice does not hold a scale that is level. One side inevitably holds more weight. This is a fundamental part of the justice system. The tipped scales can be viewed then as the reason for justice as opposed to the method by which justice is done. A wrong has been committed resulting in the skewing of the scale; justice strives to right this wrong and return the scales to their natural state of harmony and evenness.
Since antiquity the sword has been a symbol of strength and righteousness. Culture has attributed meaning to this particular object beyond that of a physical blade for an uncanny length of time. The tale of King Solomon comes to mind; his threatened use of the sword to kill a child claimed by two women was used to reveal the true mother. I believe the sword Lady Justice holds represents the strength of truth. The sword is a beacon, it illuminates the way through the “darkness” of uncertainty and doubt. Her sword guides her, much like a Jedi lightsaber. (look up Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth’s influence on Star Wars if interested in this comparison)
Of course in the postmodern milieu of modern life, there are many people with far more knowledge of the legal system than myself who propose (primarily by isolating the scales from the rest of the image) that Lady Justice should be used to guide the actual practice of law. The argument that the symbolic blindfold prevents her from seeing whether the scales are balanced and should therefore be removed is a popular example. Another is that the tilted scales imply a universal bias in the court against the defendant that should be corrected through some change in procedure or policy.
While I don’t personally agree with these ideas, I do think they are worth mentioning. As America strives towards social equality sometimes I fear that parts of our history that do not reflect modern values may be compromised. Personally, I would find it tragic if Lady Justice were replaced because she’s not fashionable.
, A Middle-Class Stereotype for the Modern Age