The function of a motto is to give clear, concise expression to one’s guiding principle, thereby shaping one’s behavior and conduct. The motto of the United States Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis — “Always Faithful.” The motto of the Boy Scouts of America? “Be Prepared” (borrowed from Exodus 34:2). The acrostic motto of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”
The motto of the United States Department of Justice, appearing on its official seal, is “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur.” The DOJ’s official website sheepishly acknowledges that this Latin phrase — used by the Department as early as the 1850s — is “somewhat enigmatic.” That is, while concise, the motto is in no way clear, owing in part to its strangled Latin syntax and in part to its shrouded historical origins. It is concerning that the stated creed of the federal department charged with ensuring fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans should remain an enigma, its meaning muddled, its translation elusive.
There have been various historic attempts (according to the DOJ, “none entirely successful”) to provide an explanation of its motto. Some trace the phrase to William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-1598), variously Chief Advisor, Lord Treasurer, and Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I. Presenting the Royal Attorney General to Her Majesty, Burghley (using the Latin then required in all legal proceedings) identified the esteemed jurist as “qui pro domina regina sequitur” — “he who prosecutes on behalf of our lady, the Queen.” History records that the multi-lingual Elizabeth objected to her trusted counselor’s wording.
Theories ascribing the motto of the United States Department of Justice to an Elizabethan formulation seem far-fetched. It is unlikely that a republic founded on the rejection of monarchy would charge its law enforcement agencies in terms associated with royal privilege. It is likewise problematic that the Department of Justice should have taken as its guiding principle not a statement of principle at all, but a narrow job description for its chief executive. The role of the American Attorney General should be defined (and discharged) in terms of that official’s responsibilities to the People and to the Constitution… not her or his personal relationship (or transactional utility) to the Head of State.
These concerns are only somewhat ameliorated by the change of domina regina (“our Lady, the Queen”) to domina justitia. Some understand the “updated” phrasing to mean “our Lady, Justice” — indicating that the Attorney General prosecutes solely in the interests of justice. Others translate the motto as “He who prosecutes for justice on behalf of our Lady” — understanding the repurposed “domina/Lady” implicitly as the personification of justice. A rhetorical, grammatical, political, and historical stretch.
It seems more likely that the motto of the Department of Justice was drawn from a body of literature, a repository of moral guidance far more familiar to nineteenth century Americans and their forebears of the founding era: The Bible. The defining influence of the Bible — especially the Hebrew Bible — on the fundamental institutions of American governance was profound. Biblical literacy among earlier generations of Americans was commensurately high (the motivation behind, not the consequence of, the frequent reference to Scripture in American political discourse and documents). Even President Andrew Jackson, himself hardly a model of personal piety or moral continence, called the Bible “the Rock on which this Republic stands.” President Calvin Coolidge (erstwhile mayor of my native Northampton, Massachusetts) observed: “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.”
Specifically, I propose that the motto of the Department of Justice be understood as the conflation of two Biblical verses.
In Exodus 32:26, Moses addresses the Israelite nation which, upon his descent from Mount Sinai, he has discovered worshipping the Golden Calf: “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” The Vulgate, the venerable Latin translation of the Bible, renders the phrase “Whoever is for the Lord” as “Si quis est Domini” — of which “qui pro domina” appears to be a more prosaic adaptation.
In this week’s aptly named Parshat Shoftim v’Shotrim (“Judges, Administrators of Justice, Officers of the Law”), we find one of the Hebrew Bible’s most famous verses: “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The Vulgate’s phrasing: “Juste quod justum est persequeris.” The verb “persequi” – to pursue – is the source of both this translation and the “sequitur” of the Justice Department’s motto. To “prosecute” is to pursue by jurisdprudential means. A prosecutor “pursues” a conviction.
Reading these two verb fragments together felicitously describes the legal system of a republic that stands on the “Rock” of the Hebrew Bible: “Si quis est Domini… justum est persequeris” — “Whoever is for the Lord, let them pursue justice!” The “enigmatic,” grammatically challenged motto of the United States Department of Justice might best be interpreted as just such a Scriptural sentiment — directed at a Bible-reading public and edited for concision and clarity: “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur — Whoever is for the Lord, let them pursue justice!”
In recent months, Americans have taken to the streets in pursuit of equal justice, demanding the accountability of those who administer the criminal justice system. This is no time for the United States or its Department of Justice to be enigmatic, unclear, or muddled regarding its guiding principles. Let today’s “Shoftim v’Shotrim” find their motto in the Hebrew Bible… which has for millennia taught humanity that justice is a sacred charge, a holy pursuit.
President Ulysses S. Grant had the right idea: “Hold fast to the Bible as the sheet anchor of your liberties, write its precepts in your hearts, and practice them in your lives. To the influence of this book are we indebted for all the progress made in true civilization, and to this we must look as our guide in the future.”
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof.
“Whoever is for the Lord… let them pursue justice!”