Equal justice under law  

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Equal justice under law is a phrase engraved on the West Pediment, above the front entrance of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. It is also a societal ideal that has influenced the American legal system.

The phrase was proposed by the building's architects, and then approved by judges of the Court in 1932. It is based upon Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, and has historical antecedents dating back to ancient Greece.

Following ancient tradition

In the funeral oration that he delivered in 431 BC, the Athenian leader Pericles encouraged belief in what we now call equal justice under law. Thus, when Chief Justice Fuller wrote his opinion in Caldwell v. Texas, he was by no means the first to discuss this concept. There are several different English translations of the relevant passage in Pericles' funeral oration.

Here is Pericles discussing "equal justice" according to the English translation by Richard Crawley in 1874:

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

The English translation by Benjamin Jowett in 1881 likewise had Pericles saying: "the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes". </blockquote> And, the English translation by Rex Warner in 1954 had Pericles saying: "there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes". The funeral oration by Pericles was published in ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War, of which there are several other English translations.

As quoted above, Pericles said that a person's wealth or prominence should not influence his eligibility for public employment or affect the justice he receives. Similarly, Chief Justice Hughes defended the inscription "equal justice under law" by referring to the judicial oath of office, which requires judges to "administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich". Decades later, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall made a similar point: "The principles which would have governed with $10,000 at stake should also govern when thousands have become billions. That is the essence of equal justice under law."

See also

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