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What does "Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum" Mean?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

The phrase fiat justitia ruat caelum translates to “may justice be done though the heavens fall.” This maxim on the urgent necessity of justice, has been used in different ways since its origin, which is dated back to the late first century BCE The Latin phrase is more of a general philosophical statement than a technical legal term.

Ancient Greek and Roman leaders have used the phrase fiat justitia ruat caelum and it has appeared in historic writings. In a kind of reversal of the general meaning of the phrase, historians cite a Roman document including an anecdote on a Roman official named Gnaeus Piso, where in “Piso’s Justice” the term is used to mean the heavy or incorrect application of a sentence or verdict for the sake of technicality, or “for justice’s own sake.” In other applications, the phrase has a more positive meaning.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

In modern times, the phrase fiat justitia ruat caelum has been applied in many different ways, again, not as a technical legal term, but in pursuit of justice from a moral and philosophical approach. Documentarians have cited it in early English law, where the phrase was sometimes slightly changed to Fiat justitia et ruant coeli. Prior to the American Revolution, historians claim that the phrase was applied to some of those who later inspired the founders of America to break off from the British crown, which was, as American history students know, not done without considerable controversy. Phrases like fiat justitia ruat caelum could have been used by those who argued over the supposed lunacy and tyranny of King George III, especially regarding American independence.

The Latin phrase for "may justice be done though the heavens fall,” may still be useful in emphasizing the pursuit of modern justice. Some states apparently use the phrase in the decoration of court rooms. The phrase has also been used in modern films and other artistic venues.

Some attempts to decipher the true meaning of fiat justitia ruat caelum go back to the cultures around the origins of the term. A writer named Alan Donegal writes expansively on the nuances of the phrase’s meaning and the idea of pursuing justice, “whatever the consequences.” Donegal writes that, “that precept was enunciated in a culture in which it was held to be impossible that the heavens should fall as a consequence of doing what you ought.” The writer goes on to explain that the contextual societal ideas of the outcomes of justice have much to do with the use of the phrase and other similar ideas on law.

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