Equality and Justice: History and Ideals
January 4, 2019
Until the completion of its own building in 1935, the United States Supreme Court previously resided in the first United States Senate Chamber in the Capitol. In an effort to further protect the separation of powers among each branch of the government, Chief Justice Taft successfully petitioned for the highest court in the land to receive its own building. Designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, the U.S. Supreme Court Building’s west façade bears the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law.” Inspired by ideals from the Fourteenth Amendment and Greek precedents, this phrase continues to represent American judicial ideals today.
The phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” traces its origins all the way back to the end of the Peloponnesian War at about 404 B.C.E. At the time, the renowned Greek general Pericles gave a famous speech in which he stated: “If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences.”
Over time, through numerous translations and with the introduction of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, this concept would slowly morph and shorten into the phrase engraved across the white marble façade of the Supreme Court Building: Equal Justice Under Law.
If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences.
In the same speech in which he inadvertently coined what is now one of the most recognized phrases in modern-day America, Pericles also proclaimed “class considerations [are not] allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.”
Pericles emphasized the fact that people’s statuses, physical states, or levels of wealth should not hinder them from equal justice or from serving in certain positions.
In a hypothetical world where our laws, judges, and processes completely followed their intended purposes, we would live in a society that perfectly promoted the due process of law.
The Judicial Oath each Supreme Court Justice must take before assuming the role expands upon this idea of equal justice. One statement from the Oath specifically mandates that each justice “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.”
Equality and justice should not only complement each other, but also serve the same purpose. Equality and justice both represent egalitarianism and fairness. Without equality, true justice cannot exist; and without a way to deliver just verdicts that ensure impartial treatment, the meaning of equality is nothing more than an unenforced altruism.
From Pericles to modern-day Supreme Court Justices and leaders, the meaning behind “Equal Justice Under Law” has remained the same. However, truth rarely ever completely adheres to theory. In a hypothetical world where our laws, judges, and processes completely followed their intended purposes, we would live in a society that perfectly promoted the due process of law.
But we are far from that reality.
[Each Supreme Court Justice must] administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.
Although the United States on a global scale serves as a leader for democracy and transparency, internally it still has room for improvement. In every single state, some form of wealth-based discrimination exists in the criminal justice system. Laws that target the impoverished and harsh sentencing practices for victimless crimes corrupt our views of equal justice. From money bail to driver’s license suspensions to statutes that make paying off debts harder for low-income individuals, laws that demand unaffordable payments for freedom are inherently discriminatory. To achieve true equal justice, we must change from within.
The history of “Equal Justice Under Law” dates back to long before the establishment of America, and it has survived because it captures the unbreakable spirit of the legends who fought for our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Like the countless individuals who have devoted their lives to promoting equality in the past, Equal Justice Under Law (EJUL) strives to work towards its American Dream of achieving a more perfect union. Out of many, EJUL is one organization that seeks to bring a judicial system corrupted by several discriminatory factors closer to one concept: a country that operates with equal justice under law.
Sources for story
Thucydides. (431 B.C.E.). The History of the Peloponnesian War. (Richard Crawley, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved December 2018, from The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.2.second.html
Supreme Court of the United States. (2009, August 10). Text of the Oaths of Office for Supreme Court Justices. Retrieved December 2018, from Supreme Court of the United States: https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/oath/textoftheoathsofoffice2009.aspx