Carved in stone: The ideals of justice are timeless and permanent

Friday, March 31, 2006

By Michael A. Wolff

When we say something is chipped or carved in stone, we mean it is permanent. Words expressing our highest ideals are carved in stone on many of our nation's court buildings. The ideals expressed are timeless and permanent. The occupants of the buildings are temporary.

"Equal Justice Under Law" is carved in stone on the front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. The phrase expresses a permanent ideal -- and a reminder to those who serve there that they are temporary custodians of that ideal. The phrase, by the way, was not crafted by the Founding Fathers or by a great lawyer but probably by the building's architect to express an ideal that would fit the space on the front of the building. That somehow seems fitting, because architects of such magnificent buildings are in the permanence business.

The Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City likewise has two ancient ideals carved in stone in Latin on its front corners. Latin, of course, is a language no longer spoken, so the meanings of its words do not change with being used, as spoken languages do. Latin phrases are used because their meanings are considered fixed and permanent.

Perhaps you thought lawyers and judges use Latin to hide what they mean, but the truth is that few in the legal profession know Latin. On the rare occasions that I find Latin sayings, I find translations on the Internet.

One of the Latin sentences in stone on the front of the Missouri Supreme Court building, translated, means: "Where there is a right, there is a remedy (Ubi jus, ibi remedium)." Our building is nearly 100 years old, but the sentence is several centuries old. It expresses an ideal that is a cornerstone of English and American law.

"Where there is a right, there is a remedy" comes to us from the English common law. The ideal is echoed in article I, section 14 of the Missouri Constitution, a provision mandating "That the courts of justice shall be open to every person, and certain remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character, and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay." The idea that justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay comes to us from the Magna Carta (or Great Charter) of English law that dates from the year 1215.

At the other corner of the Supreme Court building is the centuries-old principle, which translated, says: "To declare the law, not to make it (Jus dicere, non dare)." Another common translation uses "speak" rather than "declare," but either way, it expresses the principle that courts are bound by the law as made by others -- the legislative and executive branches of government and the constitution.

Missouri's courts also follow common law principles, as adapted from the English common law, which are expressed in precedent cases. But laws enacted by the general assembly and regulations of the executive branch that are authorized by those laws trump the courts' declarations of the common law. And the commands of the state and federal constitutions trump the laws enacted by the general assembly and the regulations of the executive branch.

The courts' duty is to find, declare, apply and enforce the law. This leads us to the sentence in stone, front and center on our Missouri Supreme Court building, in plain English: "The law has honored us. May we honor it."

The words in stone are permanent. They express true and timeless values of our democratic republic, and apply to all three branches of government -- legislative, executive and judicial. We who serve in government are merely temporary custodians of these ideals.

Michael A. Wolff is chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City, Mo.

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