The sign and seal of justice.

AuthorMadan, Rafael Alberto
PositionP. 123-156

The United States Department of Justice often is asked about the origins and history of its seal and its various elements, and in particular, to render in English the Latin motto that figures prominently thereon: QUI PRO DOM1NA JUSTITIA SEQUITUR. These queries are not of merely academic or historical interest. A motto is more than a supermarket jingle, commercial tag-line, or campaign slogan; its function, rather, is to encapsulate the aspirational intention or purpose of an individual or a sociological group--be it a family or society, a people or nation, an entity or institution--in a word or succinct phrase. Thus, interest in the Department's motto (and, derivatively, its seal) is unsurprising: these are, after all, words it is to live by. (1) What may be surprising is that none of the serious efforts undertaken to date to arrive at definitive responses to these queries has been entirely successful--in fact, the queries have generated some obscure answers that hark back to before the founding of the Republic and to distant reaches of the world.

To go to the heart of these queries, the motto itself has been described as "hopeless: its translation ha[ving] baffled more than one good Latin scholar"; (2) "couched in ... ehptic [sic] Latin"; (3) "a never-ending source of speculation"; (4) "a puzzle ... [whose] translation is disputed"; (5) a puzzle that, perhaps "due to sheer ignorance or to carelessness..., [was caused by] a mistake ... in the wording"; (6) "a 'hopeless' grammatical construction that defies translation into understandable English," but "not a mere hapless archaic expression, [being,] rather[,] a descriptive expression of some classical worth"; (7) a focus of "much speculation and disagreement over [its] origins and meaning"; (8) and "a somewhat strange Latin ... [that] offers as much of a bafflement to some ... as [Attorney General Thornburgh] confess[ed] it first did to [him, and that] ... is one of the great mysteries of the western world--even to scholars who know Latin." (9)

The primary difficulty in responding accurately to the queries arises from the curious fact that it is not now known exactly when the original of the Department's current seal was adopted or first came into use, or when the motto first appeared on it. The so-called Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the office of the Attorney General (10) (antecessor of the Department (11)), made no express provision for a seal. This omission was left uncorrected for some sixty years, until the Act for Authenticating Certain Records (February 22, 1849), which provided

[t]hat all books, papers, documents, and records in the ... Attorney-General's office, may be copied and certified under seal..., and the said Attorney-General shall cause a seal to be made and provided for his office, with such device as the President of the United States shall approve. (12) On a now-forgotten day between that one and March 6, 1854, a seal, supposed to incorporate the arms of the United States--which are also depicted on the back of the $1 bill (13)--was adopted for the Attorney General's office, presumably with the President's approval. (14)

Despite repeated research in the Department archives since before 1904 by numerous scholars (and later by the author), no record has been found that indicates even the approximate date of creation of this seal, its (presumed) approval by the President, or its adoption by the Attorney General. (15) Moreover, in his own page-by-page review of the thirty-five-some bound tomes of filings (many from the Attorneys General) in the U.S. Supreme Court from 1848 to 1857, the author found no evidence of use of any official Attorney General seal. (16) Of course, this absence of evidence may be unremarkable, given that early Attorneys General, while in office, often argued cases before that Court in their private capacities, as attorneys for private (paying) litigants:

From the beginning, Presidents were aware that the low salary paid the Attorney General made it difficult to attract high-grade men to the office. They baited the hook with the lure of remunerative private practice.... [The first Attorney General, Edmund Jennings Randolph of Virginia,] burdened with heavy financial obligations ... took the bait and the job. During his tenure [(1789-1794)], he substantially augmented his income by representing private clients. Twenty-two of his successors followed his example, some of them appearing as counsel in the most noted cases of their times. (17) As described by Attorney General Caleb Cushing,

When the office of Attorney General was created [in 1789]..., inequality existed between his salary and that of other [Cabinet members]. The reason why he received less than the others is given by Washington in his letter to Mr. Edmund Randolph, tendering to him the first appointment of Attorney General, in which he says: "The salary of this office appears to have been fixed at what it is from a belief that the station would confer pre-eminence on its possessor, and procure for him a decided preference of professional employment."[18] On this basis things continued[, with] the Attorney General receiving less salary than his...

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