I visited the Kansas Supreme Court building recently, a building I had a very small part in building back in 1977.
While John Jones and I worked outside this landmark to justice providing water proofing membrane under the exterior granite walkway, a sculptor was working inside the building providing a symbolic element, the statue Justice.
A semi-kneeling female figure holds high a native prairie falcon— the dual image meant to suggest both sensitivity and compassion as well as keen vision and swiftness in the judgments set forth in this highest of state’s courts. The statue rests in the middle of a space 60 feet in each direction, the cube shaped area suggesting the aspiration to perfection in the application of the law.
While working on the walkway back in 1977, I took advantage of my breaks to watch the sculptor Bernard Frazier and his son Malcolm, use air chisels as they reduced the large, rough block of stone toward the final, elegant form you see today. The architectural elements and visual symbolism intentionally incorporated into public buildings like this court aren’t meant to be merely ornamental; these elements are meant to speak to the profound importance of what takes place within these walls. The symbolic elements of space and statue in this Supreme Court building speak to a corporate commitment to pursue the virtue of justice. With that in mind, I was chagrined to note cobwebs on both Lady Justice and her paragon of swift, wise discernment. Cobwebs on justice!? It seemed a contradiction of symbols— in contrast to the falcon’s keen sight and attention, the cobwebs imply indifference and lack of care, at least from the building maintenance crew, and there’s the rub. Our corporate, civic and political groups may aspire nobly. We may also remind ourselves of those lofty aspirations in the architecture of our key structures and spaces. But if we lack personal vigilance and a corporate commitment to virtue, those symbols become memorials to past ideals and not a reflection of present reality. I fear the cobwebs on Lady Justice are an unintentional but telling reflection of a corporate yawn toward virtue generally, and a lack of the character qualities that ultimately make justice possible. Justice requires a commitment to truth telling, yet truth doesn’t appear to be important in our political or judicial establishments. The prophet Isaiah gives an apt description of the mugging of Truth in our own day—
“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the street and uprightness cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:14
Justice requires a commitment to submit to appropriate authority, yet the very court that sits in Lady Justice’s home in Topeka exceeded its own constitutional prerogatives when it determined the required levels of spending on state education, a prerogative clearly given, not to the judicial, but to the legislative branch of state government. Justice requires impartiality— whether a person has great social status and wealth or none at all, shouldn’t affect the administration of justice. Yet cases that routinely make the national news show that “justice” can be purchased with the right amounts of money and the most expensive attorneys. Such “justice” is no justice at all but a reflection of our fallen virtues.
“have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James 2:4
I sat in jury selection recently and was encouraged by the communication given by video and later by a judge as to the role the jury would play in the upcoming trial. I saw the importance of the system of justice to which plaintiff and defendant appealed. I felt the weight of responsibility that would come in approving, or denying claims that would have life long effects on both parties. What a privilege! What a responsibility. And yet, the plaintiff and defendant would stand no chance of justice if judge and jury don’t embrace truth, impartiality, and equity because justice can never rise higher than the virtues held by those dispensing it.
I hope the maintenance department at the supreme court building cleans up Lady Justice so she sees clearly again and so the prairie falcon soars without being tied down by cobwebs. But much more, I hope that individuals and society can aspire again to a view of virtue that makes justice possible.
You cannot make men good by law; and without good men you cannot have a good society. C. S. Lewis