Source: (2004) Special issue, “Fall 2003 Dispute Resolution Institute Symposium”, Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy. 25(2): 347-354.
Behind the judgeÃ¢Â€Â™s bench in our courtroom in Haywood County, North Carolina, a plaque displays a bias-relief rendering of the Ten Commandments. Between the two tables of this Biblical code stands a blindfolded Lady Justice holding her scales. Our local village atheist, rebuffed in another dispute in the court, brought suit against the County to remove the plaque as an establishment of religion. ACLU lawyers and noted theologians weighed in, contesting whether this was simply a Ã¢Â€ÂœsecularÃ¢Â€? symbol or a blatant imposition of a particular religion. The case dragged on through appeals courts, only to become moot when the plaintiff died. His wife, a fundamentalist Baptist, refused to take up his cause. The plaque, having cost the County some $40,000 in fees, remains. In the course of this well-publicized contest no one ever pointed out that the two symbols Ã¢Â€Â“ the commands of IsraelÃ¢Â€Â™s ever watchful and protective God and the blind judge weighing competing claims Ã¢Â€Â“ are rooted in very different notions of justice. The God of the Commandments seeks out the oppressed and vindicates their cause. The blindfolded lady impersonally weighs competing claims to find a judgment removed from the contexts of the disputants. The confusion of the two principles, so vividly set forth in this contested plaque, permeates our system of justice as well. The conflict of symbols reinforces a confusion of practices and theories.
This experience reminded me forcefully of the deep connection between symbolism and practice in the law. It also reminded me that we often cannot see these connections because we are so captured by the simple distinctions between Ã¢Â€ÂœsecularÃ¢Â€? and Ã¢Â€ÂœsacredÃ¢Â€? that shape our discourse and vision. What we need to learn is how legal and judicial practices are deeply rooted in symbols and rituals. In order to make any basic changes in the practice of law and of the courts we have to attend to the symbolic as well as the jurisprudential dimensions of our practices. (excerpt)
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