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National Edition Morning News Briefing

Wednesday, March 11, 1998

Great Figures Gaze Upon the Court

By Joan Biskupic, Washington Post Staff Writer

Supreme Court frieze

[From left: Napolean Bonaparte, John Marshall, William Blackstone, Right of Man, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John.](Fred J. Maroon)

In the Supreme Court's white marble courtroom, the nine sitting justices are not the only presiding presence. At the center of the nation's legal system, high above the justices' mahogany bench, the great lawgivers of history are depicted in marble friezes.

From Hammurabi to Moses to John Marshall, the stone sculptures commemorate written law as a force for stability in human affairs. The larger-than-life artworks, designed by architectural sculptor Adolph A. Weinman as the courthouse was being built in the early 1930s, convey the idea that, while the law begins with individuals, its principles never die.

The 18 lawgivers looking down on the justices are divided into two friezes of ivory-colored, Spanish marble. On the south wall, to the right of incoming visitors, are figures from the pre-Christian era -- Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian (Caesar Augustus). On the north wall to the left are lawmakers of the Christian era -- Napoleon Bonaparte, Marshall, William Blackstone, Hugo Grotius, Louis IX, King John, Charlemagne, Muhammad and Justinian.

Interspersed with the lawgivers are angels representing concepts such as philosophy, liberty and peace.

Occupying nearly the highest point of the luminous, gold-edged room, above the 30-foot Ionic columns, the friezes inspire awe. When Sherman Minton, a Supreme Court justice from 1949 to 1956, pointed out the friezes to his grandson, the 10-year-old asked the predictable question, "Granddaddy! Where's God?"

John Paul Stevens, a justice since 1975, once reflected on the friezes' mingling of the religious and secular. "[A] carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, if that is the only adornment on a courtroom wall, conveys an equivocal message, perhaps of respect for Judaism, for religion in general or for law," Stevens wrote in a 1989 case involving the First Amendment's prohibition on some religious symbols in government buildings.

"The addition of carvings depicting Confucius and Muhammad may honor religion, or particular religions, to an extent that the First Amendment does not tolerate. Placement of secular figures such as Caesar Augustus, William Blackstone, Napoleon Bonaparte and John Mar-hall alongside these three religious leaders, however, signals respect not for great proselytizers but for great lawgivers."

George Gurney, a curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, notes that a certain "vocabulary" existed for courthouses and other architecture of the Beaux Arts period.

"The idea of tracing the history of law or of justice was an important feature in spelling out the purpose of the building," he said recently, adding that architects preferred some standard law figures, notably Hammurabi.

The 60-year-old choice of notables in the friezes has held up over time. Other than a brief controversy about Muhammad last year, the friezes have generated little public complaint. A coalition of Muslim groups asked the court to sandblast or otherwise remove the depiction of Muhammad, contending that it was a form of sacrilege because graven images are forbidden in Islam and that believers might be encouraged to pray to someone other than God, or Allah in Arabic.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected the request, saying the Muhammad sculpture "was intended only to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship."

The friezes, overall, reflect the ideal of certainty in the law.

"As you sit in the courtroom, perhaps looking up as you wait for the justices to come into the room, you see these friezes," said Dennis Hutchinson, a University of Chicago law professor. "And it strikes you that there is some relationship between Charlemagne and [Justice Antonin] Nino Scalia. The two individuals, whether dressed in armor [as in the frieze] or a sitting justice, are both engaged in a very earnest struggle for clarity and wisdom."

Here then, are the individuals in the friezes and their contribution to the law, starting with those on the south wall, left to right:

Menes (c. 3100 B.C.)

The first figure in the depiction on the south wall, Menes founded Egypt's first dynasty. As the first king of the earliest nation-state, Menes personifies the idea of a centralized government and political system -- the necessary basis for any coherent set of laws. Menes also was known as Narmer and is credited with founding the first imperial city, Memphis, near modern Cairo.

Hammurabi (c. 1792-1750 B.C.)

Reigning in Babylon, Hammurabi produced the first surviving set of laws. A compilation of legal procedure and penalties, the Code of Hammurabi covered all civil and criminal disputes and reflected the then-novel belief that law can be fixed and certain, rather than a series of random responses by political leaders to various forms of conduct.

Underlying his criminal penalties was the idea of equal retaliation, such as "an eye for an eye." French explorers unearthed a black stone slab containing the code in Susa, Persia, around the turn of this century. The slab is on display in Paris at the Louvre.

Moses (c. 2250 B.C.)

According to biblical accounts, the great Hebrew prophet delivered his people from slavery and received the Ten Commandments. His figure on the frieze is meant to suggest existence of a higher authority, beyond human control. The Ten Commandments are a recurring theme at the Supreme Court building, appearing in the brass doors to the courtroom. Some of the ancient commandments have descendants in modern law, such as penalties against murder and theft.

Solomon (c. 992-953 B.C.)

Regarded as a great king of Israel, Solomon's name is synonymous with judicial wisdom. The Bible says that, when two harlots claimed to be the mother of the same child, Solomon determined who was the mother by watching the women's responses to his suggestion that he cut the baby in half and give each a share. It was a test, designed to reveal the true mother. One woman agreed to the plan while the other yielded her claim.

Lycurgus (c. 800 B.C.)

A leading statesman of Sparta in ancient Greece, Lycurgus guided reform of the Spartan constitution and instituted more efficient public administration. According to legend, he believed that the most serious crime of all was retreat in battle.

Solon (c. 638-559 B.C.)

The Athenian, whose name survives as a synonym for "legislator," codified the laws of the Greeks and is credited with laying the foundation for the world's first democracy. Solon ended exclusive aristocratic control of the government, substituting an early and limited form of democracy in which wealthier citizens governed.

Draco (late 600s B.C.)

Another prominent legislator in Athens, Draco was the first to write an Athenian code of laws. But his harsh rules punished some trivial crimes with death, and Draco was known as an absolutist, hence the word "Draconian," meaning extremely severe or cruel.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.)

The Chinese lawgiver taught a comprehensive system of ideas for government and society that drew on religious, ethical, political and social influences. At the core of his teachings was belief in balance and an assertion that individual dedication to basic virtues, such as family loyalty, thrift and hard work, would cure social ills.

He said people in government should lead by example and emphasized a morality embodied in the idea that a person should not do to others what he would not want done to him. This so-called golden rule has arisen in many cultures worldwide.

Octavian(63 B.C.-14 A.D.)

The first emperor of Rome, also called Caesar Augustus, restored order to the republic and modernized many aspects of Roman life. He gave judges a new professional, authoritative role and supported their following decisions of previous cases to determine the outcome of new disputes. Adherence to precedent, one of the overriding principles of the modern Supreme Court, builds integrity in the law and inspires public respect for the court as an institution.

The nine lawgivers on the north wall, right to left, are:

Justinian (c. 483-565)

The Byzantine emperor codified Roman law and published Corpus Juris Civilis ("Body of Civil Law"), a coherent code that became the basis for modern civil law. His comprehensive work, in addition to efforts to root out corruption and make the law more understandable and accessible, inspired the term "justice," a play on his name.

Muhammad (570-632)

In Muslim tradition, this great prophet received the sacred scriptures of the Koran from God. The fundamental tenet of Islam, which covers all private and public behavior, is submission to the will of God. After last year's controversy about the image of Muhammad, the Supreme Court included this explanation in tourist materials: "The figure is a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad, and it bears no resemblance to Muhammad. Muslims generally have a strong aversion to sculptured or pictured representations of their Prophet."

Charlemagne (c. 742-814)

The Roman emperor and king of the Franks, also known as Charles the Great, conquered and Christianized much of western Europe in the Middle Ages, restoring order and learning to the fragmented Roman Empire. As he amassed military and political power, he forged a cultural renaissance crucial in development of modern Europe.

King John (1166-1216)

Ruler of England from 1199 to 1216, King John signed the Magna Carta, which elevated the importance of individual rights and the concept of due process -- the idea that laws must be administered in the same way for all. Magna Carta eventually inspired American colonists to create a government of fixed laws that would protect people from the caprice of a nation's leaders. King John's signature on the document in 1215 came only after a revolt, but by sealing it, he ensured that neither he nor any future sovereign in England would be above the law.

Louis IX (1213-1270)

King of France from 1226 to 1270, Louis IX led the seventh crusade to the Holy Land. He instituted a regular court of justice and, among his administrative reforms, sought to end abuses by legal officials in his domain. The right to appeal a verdict in all cases traces to his reign. He was canonized as Saint Louis.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

A Dutch lawyer, Grotius wrote De jure belli ac pacis ("Concerning the Law of War and Peace") in 1625, the basis of modern international law. Grotius personifies the idea that nations are bound by common interests and mutual, enforceable agreements. He also believed that nations were compelled by a "natural law," that is, a law based on humanity's nature.

William Blackstone (1723-1780)

The author of the four-volume Commentaries on the Law of England, Blackstone made the law more accessible to common people. His writings, a clear and systematic description of the state of English law, had a major influence in his country and in American colonies. Blackstone is considered one of the first to intellectualize and explain the law. American courts continue to cite his work.

John Marshall (1755-1835)

Fourth chief justice of the United States, Marshall is considered the court's greatest leader. His opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the first of his great cases, established the power of the Supreme Court to review laws for constitutionality, establishing the court's power to say what the law is.

During his 35 years on the court, Marshall was instrumental in developing a unified body of constitutional law, strengthening the federal system and, most significantly for justices to come, generating public respect for the nascent Supreme Court.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Emperor of France, Napoleon is celebrated and demonized for his warfare. But his legacy in the law is an 1804 civil code that influenced laws in Europe, Latin America and, to a lesser degree, the United States. Louisiana's unique civil code traces to the Napoleonic Code. Among its overriding principles were personal freedom, the ability to make contracts, equality among citizens and an end to church control of civilian institutions.

Bernard Schwartz, the late University of Tulsa law professor and an expert on court history who believed that the choice of the 18 lawgivers held up, observed that Napoleon once said, "My true glory is not to have won 40 battles . . . . Waterloo will erase the memory of so many victories . . . . But what nothing will destroy, what will live forever, is my Civil Code."

Staff researcher Heming Nelson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 By Washington Post. All rights reserved.


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