Quakers and Jury Duty

sealThe yellow postcard from the Jury Administration Office calling me to serve is faced with the State of Vermont’s court seal, a crudely rendered seated woman holding a staff and a set of scales topping the motto Lex Regnet Fi At Justitia.

Which I translated, after discovering “Fi At” is actually “Fiat,” through google’s translator as “The law might have done justice.” Two more auto-translators confirm the translation.

In De Ira, Seneca tells the story of a  Roman governor, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who, angry at a soldier for returning from leave without his friend, ordered his execution, reasoning he’d returned without his friend because he’d either murdered him or caused his death.  But at the execution, as the ax is descending, who should appear on the scene?  None other than the missing man.  The executioner, confronted with this evidence of innocence, arrests his ax and marches both men back to Piso.

Whereupon Piso, enraged at having his order countermanded, orders all three executed.  The first man because sentence had already been passed, the executioner for failing to perform his duty, and, in an impressive display of flawed logic, the third man for being the cause of the death of two innocent men.

“Justice” or enforcement of the law carried out which is technically correct but morally wrong or vengeful is called “Piso’s justice.”

Lex Regnet Fiat Justitia.  The Law Might Have Done Justice.

Or, it might not.

In the 18th century those who committed crimes were considered to have offended society, and society was entitled to its revenge.  Prisoners were housed in squalor, filth, and overcrowded conditions, the young and the old, the violent and the timid, crammed into cells calculated to inflict a maximum of misery and suffering.  Punishments were deliberately cruel and severe, designed to avenge and deter.

Perhaps because they were so often victims of the judicial system, Quakers were among the leading prison reformers of the period.  Insisting that prisoners be treated with kindness and respect, as fellow human beings who needed guidance to reach a righteous path, William Penn replaced revenge with reform in establishing the Pennsylvania Prison Code.  Elizabeth Fry brought reforms to the infamous Newgate Prison with her demonstration of the power of loving concern and education for the incarcerated.

And as a Friend I am led to their example of pacifism, non-violence, and a respect for the humanity in everyone.. even if that humanity is not immediately apparent to me.  While practical demonstrations of reform as a means to rehabilitate prisoners eventually led to revolutionary changes in the theories of penology, many prisons in this country lack the resources for practical application.  Between public apathy and inadequate budgets the justice system in the United States has some distance to go before enlightened penal practices can be called universal.

What justice is done when someone is incarcerated in a system which will strip from them any shred of decency or humanity, just so they can survive the experience?  Is society entitled to such a vengeance?  And is it even prudent to extract it, knowing we will eventually release this damaged person back into a society ill prepared to cope with them?

Lex Regnet Fiat Justitia.  The Law Might Have Done Justice.

A friend of mine with a background in Latin, acquired in college while translating Medieval documents, a skill which, as you might imagine, did not lead to highly profitable gainful employment but has proven a boon to her less educated friends, spent some time pondering the phrase for me.  After consulting three dictionaries and reference books, she rendered it “Let the Law be done with Absolute Fairness.”

“No,” says another scholar, peering at the phrase, Justitia should be translated as “Justice.”

Justice.  A noun. Defined in general usage as fairness or reasonableness, especially in the treatment of individuals or in the making of decisions.  But justice is also defined as the act of applying or upholding the law, no fairness implied.  Or as revenge.  Which definitely carries no connotations of fairness.

What you know about Quakers can likely be summed up in a few sentences.  They’re the people who won’t fight wars, even if they’re thrown in jail for it.  There’s quite a famous example of a Quaker who refused to fight in the conscientious objector Vermont native Cyrus Pringle. His diary, kept during the long months of defending his faith, is now available online: Cyrus Pringle’s Civil War Diary

You know us as the people who won’t swear on a Bible, or, end an affirmation with “so help me God,” as is required by the Vermont court system (1).  As one of the early Quaker leaders, George Fox famously remarked (before refusing to take an oath) “You want me to swear on the book that tells me not to swear?”  Quakers are supposed to be truthful at all times and in all things (thus making it unnecessary for them to swear to their truthfulness on a specific occasion).  But a Quaker’s refusal to swear has more to do with an unwillingness to arrogantly call upon God to vouchsafe their honesty than with a boastful assertion of unquestioned honesty in all things.  Quakers strive for a single standard of truth, but to reference that in refusing to swear an oath is vanity.

But what we should be best known for is our refusal to cede deliberation and conscience to the flawed authority of another human being, and the concept of universal community, a shared humanity.   A respect for all men, not just those in authority, calls our conscience to consider not the law, but whether the law itself is flawed or fairly applied. To condemn someone for breaking an unjust law is no justice.  To apply law without regard to circumstance or conscience.. unconscionable.

“The jury,” the court handout states, “must fully accept the judge’s explanation of the law.” (2)

No, actually, they don’t.  Where law and justice collide the Quaker, and the juror, must be guided by the light within, or conscience.

Not lex regnet fiat justitia… but fiat justitia, ruat caelum.. Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.

(1) https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/masterpages/jury-information.aspx on the right, click on Criminal or Civil Oath

(2) https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/MasterDocument/Jury%20-%20The%20Trial.pdf





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