“Etiamsi daremus non esse Deum”
(“Natural law would retain its validity, even if it came to pass that God does not exist”)
– Hugo Grotius(1583-1645), creater of the International Maritime Law (mare liberum)
A section of the carved friezes in the great hall of the US Supreme Court, depicting legendary law makers. Moses, clutching the Ten Commandments, is second from right. They are meant to represent philosophy, liberty and peace.
Occupying nearly the highest point of the luminous, gold-edged hall, above the 30-foot Ionic columns, the friezes inspire awe. When Sherman Minton, a Supreme Court justice from 1949 to 1956, pointed them out his grandson, the 10-year-old asked the predictable question, “Granddaddy! Where’s God?”
The main courtroom of the US Supreme Court is awe inspiring, with it’s high ceiling, Ionic pillars and the sheer white marble everywhere. The nine sitting justices are not the only presiding presence. High above the mahogany bench, are the figures of 18 historical lawgivers from different races and ethnicity, meant to depict diverse legal tradition and heritage from around the world that have directly or indirectly shaped the concept of law and justice in America.
The South Wall Frieze depicts personalities from the ancient pre-Christian world. It includes Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Octavian.
The North Wall Frieze shows lawgivers from the Middle Ages on and includes representations of Justinian, Muhammad, Charlemagne, John of England, Louis IX of France, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon.
The courtroom of the US Supreme Court. The three friezes with the 18 lawgivers, are high up on the walls.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those dudes on the friezes…..
Menes (c. 3100 B.C.)
The first Pharaoh of Egypt’s first dynasty, Menes singlehandedly created the world’s the first nation-state. Centralized government, through a coherent set of laws, was born. Menes did many great things but, like all great men, Menes had his quirks. At his Temple of Ptah in Memphis, Menes liked to offer human sacrifices to the Gods whenever the Gods demanded it and that was on a pretty regular basis. Egyptian gods were particularly bloodthirsty.
Pharaoh Menes’ human sacrifices were really very regular. Like once, maybe twice, a day. And don’t hold your breath over who made the shortlist of the sacrificial suckers – slaves, of course.
I can’t help imagining one of Menes’ slaves who has come alive and traveled through time to the US Supreme Court, to be confronted by the frieze of Menes up there on the wall. How would he really feel? Would he throw up his hands, awed? Inspired, by the ‘justice’ of it all? Would he scream ecstatically ‘e pluribus unum! I’m so luckeeee! e pluribus unum!’
Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 B.C.)
Reigning in Babylon, Hammurabi produced the first surviving set of laws. A compilation of legal procedure and penalties, the ‘Code of Hammurabi’ covered all civil and criminal disputes and reflected the belief that law can be fixed and certain, rather than a series of random responses by political leaders to various forms of conduct.
And boy oh boy, were they laws. Here is a sampling….
If a man has stolen goods from a temple or house, he shall be put to death and he that received the stolen property shall be put to death.
If the woman has not been careful but has gadded about, neglecting her house and belittling her husband, they shall throw that woman into the water
If a man be in debt and is unable to pay his creditors, he shall sell his wife, son or daughter or bind them over to servitude
If bad characters gather in the house of a wine seller and she does not arrest those characters and bring them to the palace, that wine seller shall be put to death
If a boy steals talents from his father’s money bag, his hands shall be hewn (cut, in this context)
Phew! This guy sounds like Dick Cheney on steroids. Imagine Hammurabi as one of the nine American Supreme Court justices. Would this would be a courtroom or would it be a body-parts wholesale business?
Moses (c. 1270 B.C.)
According to biblical accounts, the great Hebrew prophet delivered his people from slavery and received the Ten Commandments. His figure on the frieze is meant to suggest existence of a higher authority, beyond human control. There are just a few things that escape reason…..
It is virtually certain that, had Moses chosen to remain in his position as Prince of Egypt, he would have succeeded the great Pharaoh, Seti I, to the Egyptian throne, since the old man had already chosen him, over his own biological son, Ramases II. (Disclaimer: Exactly who was the Pharaoh during the Exodus is a matter of debate. Cecille B DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” says it was Ramases-II, but other scholars says it was a dude called Thutmose-I. But who gives a shit).
Had he hung in there and succeeded Set-I, Moses could have, from his position of power, accomplished a great deal of good for his people – the Jews – a people who seem to developed the art of getting in trouble into an art form over the centuries. He might been able to elevate them to status of full citizens.
(The same kind of unnecessary stubbornness got Jesus crucified. Instead of telling Pontius Pilate – ‘okay, you want to be boss, fine, just leave us alone and we won’t bother you’ – he kept blabbing about there being only one supreme god yada yada yada. But I digress).
In any case, looking at Israel, a nation that is constantly under a permanent pall of turmoil and tension and the almost universal below-the-surface Antisemitism in the non-Jewish world today, one gets the feeling that Moses ultimately failed.
Now let’s look at the Ten Commandments. Aside from the fact that most of the commandments are no longer considered cognizable offenses in most courts of law in the modern world, Moses can’t take credit for them, anyway – they were handed to him by God, for God’s sake.
Solomon (c. 992-953 B.C.)
Regarded as a great king of Israel, Solomon’s name is synonymous with judicial wisdom. When two women came to him, both claiming to be the mother of the same child, Solomon determined who was the mother by watching the women’s responses to his suggestion that he cut the baby in half and give each a share. One woman agreed to the proposal while the other yielded her claim, thereby proving through her concern, that she was the real mother.
Great, but here’s the thing – King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Any woman he took a fancy to, whether she was already married or not, had to be his. Some of them later turned him toward idol worship and orgiastic drinking parties. Being predisposed to debauchery, Solomon wholehearted took part in bacchanalian galas.
King Solomon’s descent into sin has been recorded in the Bible.
Lycurgus (c. 800 B.C.)
A leading statesman of Sparta in ancient Greece, Lycurgus guided reform of the Spartan constitution and instituted more efficient public administration. All his reforms were directed towards the three Spartan virtues: equality among citizens. Note the word ‘citizens’. Since slaves weren’t considered citizens, they didn’t figure in the equality thing. The other two values were austerity and military fitness.
According to legend, Lycurgus believed that the most serious crime of all was retreat in a conflict. He had never bloodied his own hands in battle, I hasten to add. Still, to me, Lycy at first glance seems like the only one who deserves a place at the US Supreme Court frieze.
There is just one tiny little problem – Historians are still debating whether he really existed or was just part of a mythological legend, like Achilles and Hector and Thetis and Zeus.
Solon (c. 638-559 B.C.)
The Athenian, whose name survives as a synonym for “legislator,” codified the laws of the Greeks and is credited with laying the foundation for the world’s first ‘democracy’.
Wait till you hear what the word ‘democracy’ meant to the Greeks. Solon ended exclusive autocratic control of the government, substituting it for an elitist version of democracy in which a cabal of wealthy citizens governed, somewhat akin to the Senate of ancient Rome, prior to the Julio-Claudian era.
Great, haven’t I heard something like this being called an oligarchy? So, where is the justice here?
Draco (late 600s B.C.)
Another prominent legislator in Athens, Draco was the first to write an Athenian code of laws. The problem is that Draco knew of only one punishment for all crimes, even the most trivial – death. You swiped your neighbor’s strawberries and the next thing you knew, you were sleeping with the fishes. It is not for nothing that today the term for harsh and cruel laws is ‘Draconian’.
Draco sure does merit a permanent spot at any US court. He’d have loved to administer justice in the US. Cops randomly shooting unarmed folk would have warmed the cockles of his heart. Hey, I heard that the sculptor of the Supreme Court friezes got a crick in the neck and stopped, otherwise he had plans of fitting in Genghiz Khan, Lynndie England and the Saudi King too, in the frieze. If Draco could make it to the frieze, so could they.
Octavian (63 B.C.-14 A.D.)
The first dictator of Rome, Augustus Caesar single-handedly put an end to collective decision-making in the Roman Senate, killing what little democratic process there was. A singularly dour individual, he was a vainglorious man. Forever ready to go to war, like the Americans two millennia later, he chose ‘Imperator’ (victorious commander) as his first name – Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus. As in the case of Solon, the laws that we lionize Octavian for, were meant to make life for the wealthy and well-connected easy. The slaves, who constituted 30% of the population inside the Roman Empire – even Roman citizen commoners – did not figure in this Octavian dude’s jurisprudence.
Octavian might have made Dick Cheney the Chief Justice of his Supreme Court, I swear.
He was a loner, a man who liked to be by himself. I am such a man myself. Like him, I too like to find myself in a secluded hilltop, gazing down at my surroundings or staring up at the night sky. In fact, we do have a grassy knoll behind our backyard, where I like to spend late evenings sometimes. I am just plain unlucky that a descendant of the Angel Gabriel hasn’t appeared before me so far. He probably knows that if he does appear, I just might tell him to go fuck himself.
But Angel Gabriel does appear and I happen not to be agnostic like I am, surely I cannot take credit for what he asks me to note down and convey to my fellow humans? After all, am I not pretty much like an executive assistant to the CEO, taking down his orders?
As in the case of Moses, Mohammad too was just the accidental messenger. And just like Moses, he was not the lawgiver, God was.
King John (1166-1216)
Ruler of England from 1199 to 1216, King John’s claim to fame was the Magna Carta, which is supposed to have elevated the importance of individual rights and the concept of due process – the idea that laws must be administered in the same way for all.
The only problem is that King John didn’t write the Magna Carta on his own. He had to be persuaded, with the threat of overthrow. Imagine a group of the richest and most powerful people in the country who are tired of paying high taxes, having their rights restricted by government – a cabal of robber barons who think the King is an asshole and detest him. Imagine that they get together and agree to use their wealth to force the government to behave the way they want it to behave.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the way it has always been, and probably always will be. Wealth is power, even in governments supposedly of, by and for the people.
The document called Magna Carta is touted as the ‘incarnation of the rule of law’. Since then countless statesmen have waxed eloquent over this piece of paper. In his 1941 inaugural address, FDR was heard passionately proclaiming, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history … It was written in Magna Carta.”
Yeah, right. If you stretch the truth a bit, I guess. The document was actually a deal in 1215 imposed by the richest dudes in England on King John. The wealthy threatened to withhold their money if King John didn’t ease up with his usurious taxes and arbitrary rules that restricted how the barons could run their estates. The rich “one percent” used their wealth to compel Johnny to back off. The Magna Carta barons were analogous to wealthy campaign donors, corporations or Super PACs using their wealth to gain special privileges.
Consider the one clause in this revered document so often cited as the foundation for the rule of law and ‘a jury of your peers’……
“… no freeman ought to be taken, or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties, or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land.”
Equal rights and the rule of law for all freemen. Cool, right? Except for another tiny fact. The word ‘freeman’ had a very narrow definition and meant the wealthy barons, no one else. All others – the serfs, the infantrymen, the farmers, the blacksmiths, the bakers and the road layers – worked for them or were outright owned by them as bonded labor. Equal rights, my ass.
In any case, King John was a greedy and cruel monarch who was hated by 99.999% of his subjects. When your approval rating is 0.001%, should your likeness be on a frieze in the highest court of the world’s most haloed democracy?
Louis IX (1213-1270)
King of France from 1226 to 1270, Louis IX led the seventh and eighth crusades against the Muslims, in the process of which he came to hold, albeit temporarily, vast tracts of territory that belonged to the Muslims. He was known to exhort his troops on the battlefield not to take any prisoners. The King was even canonized as Saint Louis, for these acts of aggression, by the Catholic Church. By that yardstick, I would think that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi today has a similar right to being accorded a place on that US Supreme Court frieze.
John Marshall (1755-1835)
In 1820, the U.S. Revenue Service cutter Dallas seized a slave ship that was carrying a ‘cargo’ of 281 African slaves, some of the claimed owners being Portuguese and Spanish. The U.S. Supreme Court heard five days of arguments before packed courtrooms. On the fifth day, the Chief Justice himself delivered the unanimous opinion, beginning by stating that he himself did not find any moral fault with slavery. He then went into some legal ‘spin’, declaring the slave trade a violation of natural law but not the law of nations, meaning that it may be wrong but is legal where protected by legislation.
Since the international slave trade was by then deemed illegal in the United States, slaves bound there were released, but since it was legal in Portugal and Spain, slaves of those owners were returned to bondage.
And guess who the Chief Justice was – John Marshall, a slave-owner himself. Oh yeah, John Marshall should definitely be up there in the frieze, no?
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Emperor of France, Napoleon is celebrated and demonized for his warfare. But his legacy in the law is an 1804 civil code that influenced laws in Europe, Latin America and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Louisiana’s unique civil code traces to the Napoleonic Code. Among its overriding principles were personal freedom, the ability to make contracts, equality among citizens and an end to church control of civilian institutions.
Too bad that those for whom his civil code was meant, didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the legislation, thanks to his almost constant and naked impulse for raw unprovoked military aggression. Thousands upon thousands of his soldiers trusted in him and he simply rode them off the cliff on foolhardy invasions of neighboring countries who couldn’t even finish saying, ‘ugh, there he goes again.’
In fact, anybody who held a position of authority in a slave-holding, war-mongering society and did nothing to address the issue of slavery, does not deserve a place on any frieze in any courtroom, anywhere in the world.
The American Supreme Court is of course an exception. In America, the slave-holding mindset in the white majority is still alive and well. It has in fact grown worse. Now they have intellectuals who abhor racism with one side of their faces and with other, proclaim incomprehension as to why the blacks, almost all of whom fall under Mitt Romney’s infamous 47%, can’t stop sitting around on their butts, complaining and start earning a living, now that they are ‘free’….. (If they don’t get shot by a cop first, coming out the front door, that is.)
To recap, a cursory glance will tell you that 9 of the 18 gents up there on the friezes, were either slave-holders themselves, actively abetted slavery or at best found ‘nothing wrong’ in the owning of slaves.
In a way, I can understand the friezes in the US Supreme Court. They are in fact quite apt, for an institution that has constantly lied to it’s black, latino and aboriginal citizens over the past century, making them believe that it’s justice was accessible to them all, quoting those flowery words of the constitution to tell them that they counted, that they were free.
I am not impressed by the cavernous room, the red carpets, the marble pillars and the grandiose friezes. They can all go fuck themselves.
It takes more, to deliver true justice.