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Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First Century Courthouses


Judith Resnik


Yale University - Law School

Dennis E. Curtis


Yale University - Law School

December 14, 2007

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 151, No. 2, p. 139, 2007
Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 150

Abstract:     
All over the globe, nations rely on a statue of a large hulking woman (sometimes named Justice, sometimes Justicia, sometimes Themis, and usually holding scales and sword) to symbolize that their justice systems have aspirations of fairness and impartiality and also to lay a claim to power. The attributes associated with this Justice image - a woman with scale, sword, and sometimes a blindfold - have a remarkable longevity, as can be seen in cartoons and advertisements, as well as in courthouses.

This Lecture provides a multi-century, cross-cultural visual narrative of both continuity and change in the use of adjudication by governments seeking to legitimate their authority to impose their law through judges. From the story of the Judgment of Solomon to the Town Halls of Siena and Amsterdam, one can find examples of adjudication, a task of governance that predates democracy. From those walls and the allegories that they represent, one can learn how adjudicatory practices contributed to democratic ideology by generating norms that decisionmakers not be corrupted by payments from one side, that their decisions be predicated on information rather than be arbitrary, and that they hear both sides (audi alterum partem).

But democracy has radically increased the demand for adjudication as it provided rights of access to all persons, now seen as equal before the law. That demand in turn has transformed the function and some of the processes of adjudication. The pattern of an expansion of adjudicatory rights is echoed around the world, as can be seen by the many countries with major new buildings of courts and the growth of transnational courts.

This Lecture thus also maps the challenges that democracy poses for adjudication. The responses to the growth in demand has resulted in a shift of many decisions to alternative forms of decisionmaking that limit public access to adjudication. In the United States federal system, for example, fewer than two of one hundred civil cases start a trial. Further, administrative adjudication is increasingly important, as tens of thousands of hearings are held annually in federal agencies dealing with federal benefits, employment discrimination, veterans and immigration. But these proceedings are not readily accessible to street traffic.

By reviewing the pictorial history of adjudicatory processes, we raise the question of the future trajectory of adjudication. Even as new courthouses are built around the world, the opportunities for persons to use them may be narrowing. Moreover, the didactic messages conveyed are often more celebratory than reflective of the obligations, under democracy to make accessible justice and to respond to injustice. With rare exceptions (such as the Constitutional Court of South Africa), the iconography of justice has not yet come to reflect the infusion of norms that democracy brings to adjudication.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 46

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Date posted: December 16, 2007 ; Last revised: December 15, 2009

Suggested Citation

Resnik, Judith and Curtis, Dennis E., Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First Century Courthouses (December 14, 2007). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 151, No. 2, p. 139, 2007; Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 150. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1054321

Contact Information

Judith Resnik (Contact Author)
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1447 (Phone)
203-432-1719 (Fax)
Dennis E. Curtis
Yale University - Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-2427 (Phone)
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