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Symbolism in the Modern American Courtroom

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Symbolism in the Modern American Courtroom

courtroomThis article will address some of the common symbolism found in the modern American courtroom and answers common questions such as why does a judge wears a black robe?  Why is the judge’s bench elevated?  This article will address some of the traditions and symbolism present in a typical American courtroom.  It is important that we remind ourselves of the symbolism because “[c]eremonial ritual achieves its power over the human mind and heart through the manipulation of symbols” Goodsell, Charles T. The Social Meaning of Civic Space: Studying Political Authority through Architecture. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1988. Print.

In America, we did not build national cathedrals.  Instead we built ornate and impressive courthouses.  The local county courthouse has become iconic in literature and film as the quintessential meeting place and open forum in which participatory democracy takes place. The rooms themselves are finely appointed to symbolize the importance of the setting and of the work that takes place therein.  You get a sense of that importance the moment you walk in the “public” door.  Unlike you, the jury and the judge come in from a different door which demonstrates their special roles as initiates in the power structure.  Spectators are required to keep a strict decorum and wear appropriate clothes.

In most courtrooms, the judge sits in front of the Seal of the State.  The seal is a round object that reminds one of the halo in religious iconography.  In the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, among other religions, sacred persons may be depicted with a halo in the form of a circular glow, or in Asian art flames, around the head.  The seal is often flanked by the flags of Ohio and the United States. These symbolize the authority from which the power of the court is given.  This is a tradition dating back to our English common law traditions where the two sources of power for the court came from the King and the Church of England.

The judge sits upon a raised platform that symbolizes the power and authority of the government to literally “look down” and “pass judgment” upon the convicted.  Some ancient cultures worshipped the sun and others believed gods to dwell in the heavens, therefore the person closest to the sky was privy to more wisdom and power.  The jury box is often elevated to be on the same level as the witness to demonstrate that the witness is amongst peers, but at a lower level than the judge.  As the judge walks in they are guarded by armed bailiffs and accompanied by a court stenographer who will transcribe all the important words he or she says.  When the judge walks into the room all are required to rise much like one rises for a priest in a house of worship.

At the judge’s side sits a gavel.  Drawing on the symbolism of power and authority, the judge can “drop the hammer” to restore order or end debate.  The gavel is also a literal weapon which symbolizes that all are vulnerable to the power of the court.  It also has the ceremonial tenor of a scepter which gives authority and is only allowed to be wielded by the person who is in control.  Just as the scepter rests on a cushion at the free hand of the monarch, so to the gavel sits in ceremonial repose awaiting the appropriate moment where it can be used to demonstrate authority.

The most ancient symbol associated with the law is also one of the most familiar, the Scales of Justice. Symbolizing the impartial deliberation, or “weighing,” of two sides in a legal dispute.  In most courtrooms you can find the scales sitting on the judge’s bench.  You may also find books.  Book are another ancient symbol representing learning, written knowledge and judgments.  You may also see depictions of scrolls or tablets.  These symbolize that the law, in some form or another, has been handed down from time immemorial.  Why do you often see a lamp, commonly a reading lamp, at the bench?  Could it be that the lamp is a traditional symbol for eternal wisdom?

The judge takes the bench dressed in a modes black robe.  In a great article on this topic, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argues that the simple robe may be traced to Thomas Jefferson.   She writes, “[a]s an ardent supporter of modest republican citizenship, Jefferson was against “any needless official apparel,” especially “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” It is believed that by 1801, when John Marshall became chief justice, the justices were in the habit of wearing black.”

There is also the mythologized and romanticized belief that through the clash of differing points of view, the truth will win the day.  Harkening back to a tradition where aristocrats could choose a champion to fight for them, the modern courtroom uses highly trained combatants to argue a cause.   Although both sides in a case have a chance to present their arguments, their legal representation may not be equal, e.g. wealthy people can afford to hire better lawyers.  The judge’s role is to assure that the combat is fought according to the rules and requires strict impartiality.  Even the appearance that one side is being favored draws into question the entirety of the adversarial system.

 In most courtrooms you will also be able to find the Constitution.  In America there is no king or church from which we draw the foundation of our laws.  Instead we derive our laws from the Constitution; a revolutionary document that says “we the people” are the source of good governance.  Our Constitution is on display at the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, DC.  It dwells there as a living reminder of our ideals.

Attorney Charles M. Rowland II dedicates his practice to defending the accused drunk driver in the Miami Valley and throughout Ohio.  He has the credentials and the experience to win your case and has made himself Dayton’s choice for drunk driving defense. Contact Charles Rowland by phone at (937) 318-1384 or toll-free at 1-888-ROWLAND (888-769-5263). If you need assistance after hours, call the 24/7 DUI Hotline at (937) 776-2671.  You can have DaytonDUI at your fingertips by downloading the DaytonDUI Android App or have DaytonDUI sent directly to your mobile device by texting DaytonDUI (one word) to 50500.  Follow DaytonDUI on Facebook, @DaytonDUI on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Pheed and Pintrest or get RSS of the Ohio DUI blog.  You can email CharlesRowland@DaytonDUI.com or visit his office at 2190 Gateway Dr., Fairborn, Ohio 45324.  “All I do is DUI defense.” 

To show me a cool courtroom contact me, or check these city-specific sites at the following links:

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Charles Rowland


Charles M. Rowland II has been representing the accused drunk driver for over 20 years. Contact him at (937) 318-1384 if you find yourself facing a DUI (now called OVI) charge.

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