Fiat justitia ruat caelum

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Crest of the family of Joseph Drew of Weymouth, Dorset, 1870. Variant spelling cœlum.

Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum 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.[1] It has also been ascribed to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, see "Piso's justice". It was used in Somerset v Stewart.[2]

Classical forms[edit]

The ancient metaphor of the falling sky[edit]

The falling sky clause occurs in a passage of Heauton Timorumenos, by Terence, suggesting that it was a common saying in his time. In the scene, Syrus suggests a scheme through which Clinia might deceive another into taking actions that would further his love interests. Syrus lays out his plan, while Clinia, who must act it out, finds faults with it, finally asking, "Is that sufficient? If his father should come to know of it, pray, what then?" To which the Syrus replies, "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?'", the suggestion being that Clinia has no other options available, so to worry that the plan will, obviously, fail if the father finds out makes no more sense than worrying about the fact that it will also fail if the world were to suddenly end.[3][4]

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."[5] 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"[edit]

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 grounds 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 theoretically defensible, but technically and morally wrong—and this could be construed as a negative interpretation of the meaning of Fiat justitia ruat caelum according to Brewer's entry on Seneca.[6] However, the phrase Fiat justitia ruat caelum does not appear in De Ira;[7] and, in fact, Seneca used the story as an example of anger leading people to ignore right and do wrong, as Piso's decisions trampled on several legal principles, particularly that of Corpus delicti, which states that a person cannot be convicted of a crime unless it can be proven that the crime was even committed.[8] Piso's verdict could never be an example of justice because of these fatal flaws: he could not charge a suspect with murder because he lacked physical, demonstrative and testimonial evidence to establish that the missing individual has indeed died (the physical body of the deceased being the most important of these absences).[9]

Piso was put to trial a short time after this episode, accused of a long list of crimes, and committed suicide.[10] Among the charges brought against him was summary judgment, the crime of sentencing a suspect with undue haste and without proper investigation, thus ignoring the legal procedures of justice.[11][12][13]

The phrase is sometimes attributed to a different Piso, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, possibly a confusion with this case.[14]

Modern origins[edit]

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 on 8 June 1768, on the case concerning the outlawry of John Wilkes (and not, as is commonly believed, in Somerset v Stewart, the 1772 case concerning the legality of slavery in England).[15][2] Another famous eighteenth-century usage appears in David Hume's 1748 essay "Of Passive Obedience". Hume rejects it as false, although he argues that justice must in extraordinary cases of necessity be sacrificed to the public interest.[16]

In 1860 this maxim was placed on the flag of the Alamo City Guards Texas Militia.[citation needed]

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)[15]

Famous modern uses[edit]

In British India, this phrase was used by Sir S. Subramania Iyer during a case ("Tirupati (or Tirupathi) Mahant case") in Madras High Court. It was a case regarding religious faith versus the law, where a Hindu Temple administrator (called the 'mahant') was accused by the high priest of misappropriation of donations, replacing a vessel full of gold with base metals, like copper and placing it beneath the flagstaff of the temple. The barrister representing the high priest used this phrase in his speech to justify digging up the flagstaff to check the vessel.[17] 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 Patterson, one of nine black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. Horton quoted the phrase when explaining why he made his decision, even though he knew it would mean the end of his judicial career.[18] This is referenced with the title of a film based on the case, Heavens Fall (where the line is quoted). Similarly, Lord Mansfield, in reversing the outlawry of John Wilkes in 1768, 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." The University of Saskatchewan College of Law uses the first half of the phrase as their motto, simply: "Fiat Justitia". The entire phrase is the motto of the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.

In the Oliver Stone 1991 film JFK, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) uses a 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 (misspelled 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."[19]

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."[20]

The anime series Aldnoah.Zero features the phrase as a tagline alongside the show's logo. It is also speculated[by whom?] that the ending of the series' first half is a retelling of "Piso's Justice", concerning the fate of the three men.[citation needed]

In an episode of Hawaii Five-O, Steve McGarrett has to deal with an extralegal Star Chamber court that addresses cases of accused who got away with their crimes because of some technicality or procedural error. The leader would end their deliberations with the quote, then proceed to the verdict, usually death. McGarrett reads the quote in one scene, then translates it.[citation needed]

In the Better Call Saul episode "Chicanery", the character Charles McGill utters the phrase "Let justice be done though the heavens fall!" before making an argument to appear in open court in a trial against his brother Jimmy.[21] Jimmy would later echo the phrase in the episode "Fun and Games", as the series flash-forwards to his most successful period under the persona Saul Goodman.[citation needed]

In the Designated Survivor episode "Target", the character Seth Wright utters the phrase "Let justice be done though the heavens may fall!" referring to President Kirkman's intention to "do what is right" in the face of former President Moss's announcement of his candidacy for the next presidential election in order to undermine Kirkman's administration.[citation needed]

During President Clinton's Impeachment Hearings, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Let justice be done though the heavens fall".

In The Boys (TV series), the phrase is carved into the base of the statue of The Seven outside of the conference room in Vought Tower.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Position and Duties of the Merchant: Address Before the Mercantile Library Association of Boston, Nov. 13, 1854". The Works of Charles Sumner. Vol. III. Boston: Lee and Shephard. 1875. p. 507. Of these, the first is expressed in these simple words: "If the parties will have judgment, fiat justitia, ruat coelum: let justice be done, whatever be the consequence." The Latin phrase which here plays such a prominent part, though of classical stamp, cannot be traced to any classical origin, and it has even been asserted that it was freshly coined by Lord Mansfield on this occasion, worth of such commanding truth in such commanding phrase. But it is of older date, and from another mint,—though it is not too much to say, that it took its currency and authority from him. Coming from such a conservative magistrate, it is of peculiar importance. With little expansion, it says openly: To every man his natural rights; justice to all, without distinction of person, without adbridgment, and without compromise. Let justice be done, though it drags down the pillars of the sky. Thus spoke the Chief Justice of England.
  2. ^ a b Somerset v Stewart, 98 ER, 499 (1772).
  3. ^ "Heauton Timorumenos, Act IV, scene 3". Retrieved 10 May 2016.
  4. ^ "Heautontimorumenos, Act IV, scene 3, 719". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  5. ^ (Elegies 869-872, translated by Dorothea Wender.)
  6. ^ "Brewer's 1898: Piso's Justice". Retrieved 19 September 2014.
  7. ^ Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (1981) [40 AD]. De Ira. Scriptorum Romanorum quae extant omnia. Vol. 369–372. Giardini.
  8. ^ Motto, Anna Lydia (2009). Additional Essays on Seneca. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften. ISBN 9783631582657.
  9. ^ Greenleaf, Simon (1883). A Treatise on the Law of Evidence. Vol. 3. Brown.
  10. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Piso § Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 652.
  11. ^ Rowe, Greg (2002). Princes and Political Cultures: The New Tiberian Senatorial Decrees. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472112302.
  12. ^ Senatus Consultum de Pisone (The Senate's decree against Gnaeus Piso senior)
  13. ^ Ando, Clifford; Tuori, Kaius; du Plessis, Paul (2016). Oxford Handbook of Law and Society. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198728689.
  14. ^ Howe, Laurence Lee (1938). Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, as Governor of Macedonia (57 to 55 B.C.). University of Chicago.
  15. ^ a b "R v. Wilkes, (1768) 4 Burr 2527, 2562, 98 E.R. 327 (347)" (PDF). Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  16. ^ See Hume, David (1758). "Of Passive Obedience". Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (New ed.). Strand and Edinburgh: A. Millar and A. Kincaid & A. Donaldson. p. 262. Retrieved 9 January 2022 – via Internet Archive. david hume essays.
  17. ^ Rajah, N.L. (13 August 2018). "The inexorable wheels of justice". The Hindu. Retrieved 13 August 2018.
  18. ^ "Profile of Judge James Horton. Jr., Scottsboro Judge". Archived from the original on 8 August 2017.
  19. ^ Conrad, Joseph (1899). Heart of Darkness. London: The Penguin Group. p. 96. ISBN 9780141441672.
  20. ^ Eliot, George (1874). Middlemarch. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. p. 240. ISBN 9780393974522.
  21. ^ "Better Call Saul "Chicanery" Episode #305" (PDF). Retrieved 23 July 2019.

External links[edit]

Media related to Fiat justitia ruat cælum at Wikimedia Commons