INTRODUCING THE LAWGIVERS

This confluence of lawgivers from many different backgrounds, religions, time periods and cultures is poetic. It speaks not only to the diversity of the many legal forebears to whom America is indebted but also to the great diversity inherent to the American experience.
Unless you have visited the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., you may be unaware of some remarkable artwork that is visible there. Constructed in the 1930s, the building was designed as a “Temple of Justice” in a neoclassical style, featuring marble friezes and sculpture that are rife with symbolism. Of particular note are two ornate friezes that have been carved high above the seats of the nine justices, on the north and south walls of the courtroom itself, depicting a grand procession of elaborately dressed personages reminiscent of something you might find in ancient Greece or Rome.

Intended to convey the progression and development of law through the ages, the detailed figures featured in these two friezes represent eighteen of the greatest lawgivers from history. The south frieze depicts ancient and classical figures from before the Christian Era, while the north frieze portrays lawgivers from the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. In total, the two friezes depict individuals from many different civilizations, including nine monarchs, four statesmen, two judges, two prophets, and one philosopher. Interspersed between the historical figures are iconic winged angels who are meant to personify certain ideals, like equity, authority, wisdom, liberty and peace.

Adolph A. Weinman, a renowned sculptor, was commissioned by the architect of the Supreme Court Building to create these friezes. His portrayal of the great lawgivers illustrates that the American legal system did not simply spring up fully-formed after the Revolutionary War, but was instead derived from important legal precedents that had been gradually established over thousands of years. The work itself is something of an allegory, showing that although modern law originated with the teachings and dictates of many different individuals from ages past, the principles themselves which they taught are timeless.

This confluence of lawgivers from many different backgrounds, religions, time periods and cultures is poetic. It speaks not only to the diversity of the many legal forebears to whom America is indebted but also to the great diversity inherent to the American experience.

In 1989, now-retired Justice John Paul Stevens commented on the significance of the portrayal of the lawgivers, noting that merely depicting tables of commandments derived from Judeo-Christian scripture (as had been done in other courthouses in the past) might present an ambiguous message subject to misinterpretation, but that “placement of secular figures… alongside these… religious leaders, however, signals respect not for great proselytizers but for great lawgivers.”

In tribute to the great debt owed to our forebears, over the course of the next several months this blog will be pleased to feature a series of short articles discussing the significance and accomplishments of each of these great lawgivers.

The attorneys at Gillespie, Shields, Durrant & Goldfarb are experts in family, business and employment law. They are a fixture of the community and serve the Phoenix and Mesa areas. Schedule your consultation today.

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