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 do a web search using these search terms: “The symbol of Justice began centuries ago” then you’ll be taken to a website where 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.

The site goes on to note that “The modern image of Justice that many of us know today is based on Greco-Roman mythology of Themis and Justitia.  Almost always draped in flowing robes, mature but not old, she symbolizes the fair and equal administration of the law, without corruption, avarice, prejudice, or favor.  Themis, c 300 BEC, was the Greek Goddess of Justice and Law and was known for her clear-sightedness.  Her ability to foresee the future enabled her to become one of the oracles at Delphi, which in turn led to her establishment as the Goddess of Divine Justice.  Classical representations of Themis did not show her blindfolded because of her talent for prophecy, nor was she holding a sword because she represented common consent, not coercion.”

If you do a google search using the following search terms:  New York Times Lady Justice you’ll be taken to a web page where you’ll find 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.

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.

Copyright 2023 ROBERT B. JACOBS