Fiat justitia ruat caelum

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Fiat justitia ruat caelum 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. In ‘De Ira (On Anger),’ Seneca tells of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, a Roman governor and lawmaker who ordered the execution of a soldier that had returned from a leave of absence without his comrade, on the grounds that 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 technically correct, but morally wrong — and this could be construed as a negative interpretation of the meaning of ‘Fiat justitia ruat caelum.’ The positive usage (justice at all cost) appears to originate in modern British jurisprudence.

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 Haywood Patterson, one of nine black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama. Judge Horton quoted the phrase when explaining why he made his decision, even though he knew it would mean the end of his judicial career. Similarly, Lord Mansfield, in reversing the outlawry of John Wilkes in 1770, used the phrase to reflect upon the duty of the Court.

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