“But Grandpa, where’s God?”
– Boy who ventured into the main hall of the US Supreme Court and stared at the friezes of famous law makers from ancient times
A section of the carved friezes in the great hall of the US Supreme Court, depicting legendary law makers. The friezes are meant to represent justice, liberty and peace. There’s Moses, second from right, clutching those laughably useless Ten Commandments.
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 out each historic figure to his grandson, the 10-year-old listened in silence and then asked in puzzlement, “But Grandpa, where’s God?”
Indeed. Looking at today’s America, the question does reverberate….Where is God?
The US Supreme Court building is an imposing sight, ringed by pillars, it’s walls covered with carvings and quotes and bas reliefs. There’s sheer white marble as far as the eyes can see and great big Ionic pillars that rival the Acropolis. The ceilings are high and marble staircase – it appears to lead directly up to heaven.
It is not really a court by the definition of the word. Rather, the US Supreme Court is a hyper-partisan institution whose members are not really concerned with delivering justice as mandated by the American constitution. They are nominated and installed solely to pander to partisan political interests, by whoever happens to be in power with a majority in the Senate. There is this continuous tug-of-war between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, when the conflict should be between proving crime and upholding innocence.
Over the past century, it has delivered such travesties of justice and emblems of hate and bigotry, that to outsiders like me the US Supreme Court seems more like a sick joke rather than a symbol of the rule of law. And yet, even storied liberal political commentators like Fareed Zakaria insist on calling it “the last bastion of the free world that is above the political frey.” Flowery words. But then, America has always believed in perceptions, rather than the reality.
If you spoke with an Indian or a Chinese or even a Brit and asked if they knew the names of even one of their Supreme Court justices, you’d draw a blank. An Indian judge performs his task quietly without fanfare and is rarely quoted or mentioned, other than when major cases are being argued in front of them. Even then, I doubt if any member of the Indian or Chinese public would pay much attention to who the judge actually was.
Not the Americans. Americans might not be able to name all 50 states in the US or which countries are their neighbors, but they sure know their Supreme Court judges. To them, the Supreme Court must be perceived to be this great big haloed institution. A hush must fall over everyone when the US Supreme Court is mentioned.
Just imagine, strong circumstantial evidence and realms of witness testimony make it clear that one in four US Supreme court justices is a sexual predator and still sits on the bench, despite the evidence. I am referring to Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. What can Americans really expect from the court? Justice?
And then, there are those grandiose wall friezes. The nine sitting justices (who enjoy cushy lifetime appointments) are not the only presiding presence. High above the mahogany bench, are friezes with the figures of 18 historical lawmakers from different races and ethnicity, dating to as far back as 5800BC (give or take).
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 of those 18 lawmakers, high up on the walls.
The friezes are meant not only to honor the above mentioned historical figures but also to depict diverse legal tradition and heritage from around the world that have directly or indirectly shaped the concept of what Americans perceive to be law and justice in America. For Americans, those 18 dudes on the friezes are the gold standard of justice, law and order.
Now let’s take a closer look at some of these 18 dudes and judge for ourselves whether they really are the great judicial geniuses that America idolizes…..
Menes (c. 3100 B.C.)
The first Pharaoh of Egypt’s first dynasty, Menes single-handedly 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. Like once, maybe twice, a day. And don’t hold your breath over who made the shortlist of the sacrificial suckers – slaves, of course. Egyptian gods were particularly slave thirsty.
What if one of Menes’ slaves came alive and traveled through time to the US Supreme Court, to be confronted by the frieze of Menes up there on the wall? He certainly would be aggrieved.
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, put him to death and he that received the stolen property, put him to death too.
If a woman has loafed around, neglecting her house, not caring for her husband’s needs, drown that woman in the river
If a man is in debt and is unable to pay his creditors, take away his properties, his wives, sons or daughters. Use them, deliver them up for “servitude”
If a boy steals talents from his father’s money bag, his hands shall be “hewn”
Imagine Hammurabi as one of the nine American Supreme Court justices. Would this 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. Had he hung in there and succeeded Seti-I, Moses could have, from his position of power, accomplished a great deal of good for his people – the Jews – a people who had by then developed the uncanny ability to get screwed into an art form, all over the Middle East. Moses, as Pharaoh, might have been able to elevate the Jews to the status of full citizens.
In any case, looking at Israel, a nation that is constantly under turmoil and the ever growing scourge of 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 almost all courts of law in the modern free world, Moses can’t take credit for them, anyway – you see, Moses didn’t think them up. They were handed to him by God, remember?
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. What is Soly doing up there in the US Supreme Court?
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 gravy train. 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. Even so, at first glance Lycurgus 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, yada, yada, yada.
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 real justice for the common folk 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. 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 today), 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 as much as 30% of the population inside the Roman Empire did not figure in this Octavian dude’s jurisprudence. Neither did the free commoners.
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 summer evenings sometimes. I am just plain unlucky that a descendant of the Angel Gabriel hasn’t appeared before me. Maybe he knows that I’ll tell him to go fuck himself.
But if Angel Gabriel does appears before me, 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 a secretary who takes shorthand?
Just like Moses, Mohammad too was only the accidental messenger. He was not the lawmaker, God was. And pretty much like Moses, he left his community in a much worse shape than when he organized it.
King John (1166-1216)
Ruler of England from 1199 to 1216, King John’s claim to fame was the Magna Carta, a document which was 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 a coup-de-tat. 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 Magna Carta barons were analogous to wealthy campaign donors, corporations or Super PACs using their wealth to gain special privileges.
Consider this 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 today the late head of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, 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.
Guess who that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court 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, waging foolhardy invasions of neighboring countries.
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 Mohammad Bin Salman too, in the frieze
So, a 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, than shitty wall carvings.