Fiat justitia ruat caelum
Fiat justitia ruat caelum is a Latin legal phrase, meaning "Let justice be done though the heavens fall." The maxim signifies the belief that justice must be realized regardless of consequences. According to the 19th-century abolitionist politician Charles Sumner, it does not come from any classical source. It has also been ascribed to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, see "Piso's justice".
The ancient metaphor of the falling sky
The falling sky clause occurs in the passage of Terence, suggesting that it was a common saying in his time, "Quid si redeo ad illos qui aiunt, ‘Quid si nunc cœlum ruat?’" — "What if I have recourse to those who say, ‘What now if the sky were to fall?’". Similarly, the fable "The Sky Is Falling" is among Aesop's Fables.
This concern recalls a passage in Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, Book I, 4, where ambassadors of the Celtae from the Adriatic sea, tall men of haughty demeanor, upon being asked by Alexander what in the world they feared most, answered that their worst fear was that the sky might fall on their heads. Alexander, who hoped to hear himself named, was disappointed by an answer that implied that nothing within human power could hurt them, short of a total destruction of nature.
In a similar vein, Theognis of Megara urges "May the great broad sky of bronze fall on my head / (That fear of earth-born men) if I am not / A friend to those who love me, and a pain / And irritation to my enemies." Whereas Aristotle asserts in his Physics, B. IV, that it was the early notion of ignorant nations that the sky was supported on the shoulders of Atlas, and that when he let go of it, it would fall.
On the other hand, Horace opens one of his odes with a depiction of a Stoic hero who will submit to the ruin of the universe around him: "Si fractus illabatur orbis, / impavidum ferient ruinae" — "Should the whole frame of Nature round him break, / In ruin and confusion hurled, / He, unconcerned, would hear the mighty crack, / And stand secure amidst a falling world." (Odes 3.3.7-8, translated by Joseph Addison.)
Seneca: "Piso's justice"
In De Ira (On Anger), Book I, Chapter XVIII, Seneca tells of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a Roman governor and lawmaker, when he was angry, ordering the execution of a soldier who had returned from a leave of absence without his comrade, on the ground that if the man did not produce his companion, he had presumably killed the latter. As the condemned man was presenting his neck to the executioner's sword, there suddenly appeared the very comrade who was supposedly murdered. The centurion overseeing the execution halted the proceedings and led the condemned man back to Piso, expecting a reprieve. But Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage, and ordered the three soldiers to be executed. He ordered the death of the man who was to have been executed, because the sentence had already been passed; he also ordered the death of the centurion who was in charge of the original execution, for failing to perform his duty; and finally, he ordered the death of the man who had been supposed to have been murdered, because he had been the cause of the death of two innocent men.
In subsequent versions of this legend, this principle became known as "Piso’s justice", a term that characterizes sentences that are carried out or passed from retaliation — whose intentions are technically correct, but morally wrong — and this could be construed as a negative interpretation of the meaning of Fiat justitia ruat caelum.
The phrase fiat justitia does not appear in De Ira. though Brewer's attributes the story to Seneca. The phrase is sometimes attributed to a different Piso, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, possibly a confusion with this case.
The exact phrase as used for approval of justice at all cost – usually seen in a positive sense – appears to originate in modern jurisprudence. In English law, William Watson in "Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning Religion and State" (1601) "You go against that general maxim in the laws, which is ‘Fiat justitia et ruant coeli.’" This is its first known appearance in English literature.
The maxim was used by William Prynne in "Fresh Discovery of Prodigious Wandering New-Blazing Stars" (1646), by Nathaniel Ward in "Simple Cobbler of Agawam" (1647), and frequently thereafter, but it was given its widest celebrity by William Murray, 1st Baron Mansfield's decision in 1770 on the case concerning the outlawry of John Wilkes (and not, as is commonly believed, in Somersett's Case, the 1772 case concerning the legality of slavery in England). Another famous eighteenth-century usage appears in David Hume's 1748 essay "Of Passive Obedience", although Hume argued that justice must occasionally be sacrificed to the public interest.
The maxim is given in various forms:
- "Fiat justitia, ruat cœlum/coelum/cælum/caelum" (spellings)
- "Fiat justitia et ruant coeli" (Watson)
- "Fiat justitia et coelum ruat" (John Manningham, Diary, 11 April 1603)
- "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum" (Lord Mansfield)
Famous modern uses
More recently, Judge James Edwin Horton referred to the maxim when he recalled his decision to overturn the conviction of Haywood Patterson in the infamous Scottsboro Boys trial. In 1933, Judge Horton set aside the death sentence of Haywood Patterson, one of nine black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. Judge Horton quoted the phrase when explaining why he made his decision, even though he knew it would mean the end of his judicial career. Similarly, Lord Mansfield, in reversing the outlawry of John Wilkes in 1770, used the phrase to reflect upon the duty of the Court.
The phrase is engraved on the wall behind the bench in the Supreme Court of Georgia and over the lintel of the Bridewell Garda station in Dublin. The Tennessee Supreme Court uses the phrase as its motto; it appears in the seal of the Court and is inlaid into the floor of the lobby of the court's building in Nashville. During World War II, the 447th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force used the phrase as its motto, which appeared on the group's official unit markings. Ohio's Old Perry County Courthouse features an English translation of the phrase over its main entrance, which has gained extensive attention due to its mangled wording: "Let Justice be done. If the Heavens should fall."
In the Oliver Stone 1991 film JFK, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) says the variation, "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall," in reference to his investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy. In the 2006 Vin Diesel comedy Find Me Guilty, the phrase (mis-spelt as "Fiat Justica et Ruat Caelum") is inscribed on the front of a federal judge's bench, and is translated by a defense attorney as part of his opening statement.
Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, contains a possible reference to the maxim at the very end of the text. Protagonist Marlow says, "It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle."
George Eliot has Mr. Brooke mangle and misattribute this phrase in Middlemarch, where he says, "You should read history--look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing. They always happen to the best men, you know. But what is that in Horace?--fiat justitia, ruat ... something or other."
- "The Position and Duties of the Merchant: Address Before the Mercantile Library Association of Boston, Nov. 13, 1854." in The Works of Charles Sumner, Volume III, Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1875, p. 507.
- Heautontimorumenos, Act IV, scene 3, 719
- (Elegies 869-872, translated by Dorothea Wender.)
- Brewer's 1898: Piso’s Justice.
- R v. Wilkes, (1768) 4 Burr 2527, 98 E.R. 327 (347); Somersett v. Stewart (1772) Lofft. 1; 98 ER 499 (509)
- David Hume, "Of Passive Obedience", 1748.
- Profile of Judge James Horton. Jr., Scottsboro Judge
- Conrad, Joseph (1899). Heart of Darkness. London: The Penguin Group. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-141-44167-2.
- Eliot, George (1874). Middlemarch. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. p. 240. ISBN 0-393-97452-9.
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