ruat caelum.

“Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Being a judge can be a very easy job, or a very difficult one, but when it’s difficult it’s not difficult in the usual way. That is, it’s not difficult due to arduousness, or long hours. No, being a judge can be difficult when it requires moral courage, one of the four cardinal virtues of antiquity.

The Latin adage is interesting from that standpoint. Most cases are routine – by definition, we guess – and the judge doesn’t really do any of the work; rather, he reviews the work of others and his job is to make the decision. But sometimes the case is not routine – again, by definition – and what this means in practice is that the party who would be normally expected to prevail (government, bank, insurance company) should lose.

The operative word being should.

Unsurprisingly, the party that is normally expected to prevail – well – expects to prevail. When those expectations are unfulfilled “the heavens fall”. That’s the idea, anyway.

Here’s an account of a judge who did his duty in just the way we are pondering this morning. Note that he did not go on to the usual conceptions of judicial greatness, becoming a federal appeals court judge or a United States Supreme Court Justice. Indeed, knowing full well that his decision in the Scottsboro Boys case would cost him the position he had, he made his decision anyway. He lived out the rest of his life in obscurity in rural Alabama as a farmer.

We hear nothing about Judge James Edwin Horton, just as we hear nothing about John Edland. Even as we can’t avoid hearing about Kim Kardashian.

We need to do better, in terms of the cardinal virtues, obviously. Especially the virtue of courage.

Today is Memorial Day, and we here in the US observe and commemorate the ultimate sacrifices of those servicemen who lost their lives in the military service of their country. We ourselves are a military veteran of the US Navy and we do take the observance seriously.

But this is a lawyers blog, and we put up this post this morning to make this connection: our war dead made their sacrifice for a country that promises justice. When lawyers and judges fail – or indeed often refuse – to do the hard work and (in particular for judges) make the hard decisions that cause the heavens to fall we dishonor and make futile their sacrifice. That is a terrible sin.

So this morning our request is that our colleagues on the bench and in the bar rededicate themselves to do justice though the heavens fall, to do their duty without fear or favor, as they swore they would at the beginning of their careers. And by doing so honor the sacrifices of the fallen, who died defending the civilization that depends upon lawyers and judges making the hard decisions when called upon.

Amen.