justice, law

ruminations on law, justice, mercy



The three great principles of law, justice & mercy not only undergird the practice of criminal law, they influence my daily life & living. I find myself thinking more & more about their impact on the lives of those around me & around the world generally, especially in the last half dozen years or so, in what has become a pretty overt political & social climate of


division & discord

them & us

rich & poor

winners & losers

strong & weak

good & bad

love & hate

kindness & cruelty

black, coloured & white

inclusion & exclusion

displacement, abandonment, refugees

want, greed

self worship

success above all


the lust for the almighty dollar . . .



And who can forget Ambrose Bierce’s take on the three great principles of law, justice & mercy as reflected in his poem, Law, n. where the law is personified in a man:

LAW, n.

Once Law was sitting on the bench,
And Mercy knelt a-weeping.
“Clear out!” he cried, “disordered wench!
Nor come before me creeping.
Upon your knees if you appear,
‘Tis plain your have no standing here.”

Then Justice came. His Honor cried:
“_Your_ status? — devil seize you!”
“_Amica curiae,_” she replied —
“Friend of the court, so please you.”
“Begone!” he shouted — “there’s the door —
I never saw your face before!”

G.J.Ambrose BierceThe Devil’s Dictionary
US author & satirist (1842 – 1914)

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Cumberland School of Law Birmingham, Alabama


Historically the law is male.  Still, today, it systemically favors men and oppresses women.

One of the first things that struck me at Law school was the law’s overt maleness & bias against women. One only had to observe the case law, the legal texts, the authors of legal texts, the art on the walls in the law library, the legal profession itself whether the make-up of the bench, the bar or legal/law related employment generally.


What about justice? In Ambrose Bierce‘ poem justice is personified in a woman.

The ancient Greeks & (Romans) personified the forces of nature as gods & goddesses.

Justice (Iustitia) is personified as a woman. Justice is the female symbol of morality & virtue in the law, the moral force in judicial systems. Usually we see Justitia with her eyes covered (blindfolded) as she holds scales & a sword.

Again, the moral ideal of humanity is justice without which there is no liberty.

Can it be that justice is a woman? Only the law is male?

. . .  and truth (Veritas) is also a woman.



What about mercy? In Ambrose Bierce‘ poem, mercy is personified in a woman, a ‘wench’.

Clementia was the Roman goddess of mercy & compassion.  Her name means “gentleness”, “mercy”, “forbearance”, or “mildness”.  Think clemency.

Mercy seems to have both male & female connotations in legal & ethical circles. While we often think of mercy personified in a female form such as the angel of mercy, a tender mother or an order of nuns such as the Sisters of Mercy, we also speak of a merciful God, his mercy, or God in his wisdom & mercy.

Perhaps mercy is personified in both Law & Justice – male & female – such as when Law & Justice show mercy before adjudication, before sentence, or after sentence, in ensuring punishment is dealt out in merciful ways through fairness, clemency & compassion.

Or is it justice operating without law to find mercy?


Weeping Woman Statue by Luc de Leeuw (2007)

Weeping Woman Statue by Luc de Leeuw (2009)


In Bierce’ poem justice & mercy (both female) appear pleading on behalf of the one before the court, a court of law, where Law is personified in a male. Is Bierce pitting mercy and justice against law?

Which brings me to Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘The Sisters of Mercy‘.

While not a song about nuns, chaste & obedient nuns, the ladies of cloth, living in ‘poverty’ (in the conventional sense), it perhaps personifies mercy. The song was inspired by two female backpackers, Barbara & Lorraine, who, like nuns, in their chasteness, opened their hearts & gave Cohen shelter & comfort one night.  It’s something we know nuns would do.

In the song the girls shelter & comfort a person crying out from deep within his soul. They are warmth & kindness, mercy & forgiveness, balm & comfort to this person.

They are there in a time of need when life had dealt crushing blows to a human spirit leaving him lost, lonely & desperate feeling like a sinner.

As Cohen writes, ‘When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned‘. The females personify mercy, the sisters of mercy, mercy for this sinner. Cohen’s song is about mercy.


Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.

Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned:
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.

‘The Sisters of Mercy’ by Leonard Cohen



(Symbol of Justice by Gokalp10)


If Justice is a woman, Mercy is a woman, what is Law?

. . . and then there’s Truth



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