Law Hangs in the Balance

            Open up just about any phone book and turn to the yellow pages section on “Attorneys.” If you look at enough of the yellow page ads, you’re likely to see a photo (or drawing) of a set of “scales” or “balances.”  You may even see a blindfolded  “Lady of Justice” holding a sword in one hand and a set of balances in the other.

So where does this symbol of “Lady of Justice” come from and what does she represent?

Depends on who you ask. A quick internet search on “woman holding balances” will give you all kinds of opinions about the source and history of “Lady of Justice.”

For example, if you log on to you’ll see a drawing of a blindfolded “Lady of Justice” holding a sword in one hand and a set of balances in the other.  The website traces the symbol to Roman mythology, and notes that she is often (but not always) shown wearing a blindfold.  The website states that the image of “Lady of Justice” refers to one of the Roman gods; she represents the fair and impartial administration of justice.  However, the site provides no specific discussion of the sword or the balances.

If you log onto you’ll find a site maintained by the U.S. Government Printing Office for kids.  That site says that the image of “Lady of Justice” represents “the fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, greed, prejudice or favor.”  The site notes that the idea of a woman portraying Justice dates back to ancient Greek and Roman images of “Themis” and “Justicia,” and that in Greek mythology, Themis was the goddess of Justice and Law who was known for being clear-sighted (It’s interesting that in later centuries she wears a blindfold).  The site also notes that  Justicia (Justice) was a Roman goddess who was one of the four Virtues; the others were Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance.  This site notes that the symbol of Justice can be seen in three different places on the Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.  If you go to the website at  you’ll see that the Curator of the Supreme Court of the United States maintains a website which states that over time, the image of Justice became associated with “scales” (or “balances”) to represent impartiality; the image became associated with a sword to symbolize power.

If you log onto a site by the New York Times at

you’ll see that there is so much history to the image that an actual book on the subject was published in 2010 about its history. That website reviews some of the major points of the image, and includes photographs of some of its different uses, including one from the Vatican. This review describes the progression of the image from ancient Egypt, where the balances held a feather on one side and a heart on the other.  According to this article, “Lady of Justice” never wore a blindfold until the 17th century.

Perhaps one of the most unusual internet search results are several web pages that include copies of a beautiful painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.  The painting shows a young woman holding a balance. (See, for example, the entry at This Vermeer painting doesn’t appear to be based on the Lady of Justice symbol, but is instead a delicate painting of a young woman holding an empty set of balances.

It’s a certainty that our American legal system requires a balancing of interests. Whether or not the balances held by the Lady of Justice represent a balancing of interests, the courts in our country consistently find it necessary to balance competing interests.  In an interesting case, a court found it necessary to balance the constitutional right to the free use of property against the rights of free speech and the right to assemble.  For further discussion of this case, see the columns over the next three weeks.

Copyright 2017 ROBERT B. JACOBS