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Why does the U.S. judicial system use the scales of justice as a symbol?

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Quick Answer

The use of scales as a symbol of the American justice system derives from the same symbolic use by the first democracies in Ancient Greece and Rome. Balance scales, the type of scales usually depicted, are used to compare weights - in the case of the justice system, those of arguments.

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Full Answer

The scales are only a part of the broader symbolism of the justice system. Though they sometimes appear alone, they are most often depicted in the hand of Lady Justice, a woman whose evolution as a symbol has paralleled that of the scales. She derives originally from the Ancient Greek titan Themis, who was the goddess of justice and law. Ancient Romans borrowed many of their own mythological figures from the Greeks; Themis was one of them, transforming into Justitia, whose name shares a Latin root with the modern Lady Justice. All of these figures traditionally carry scales.

Weight, as a number, is considered an objective and impartial measurement. In the justice system, it is hoped that cases are tried and sentences handed down in the same objective and impartial manner as scientific measurement. This was one of many ideas from classical Greek humanism that appealed to the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, who preferred secular and empirical thought to the religious philosophies that preceded their movement. The founding fathers of the United States were themselves intellectuals well-versed not only in Enlightenment writings but the much older classics, and their idealization of Ancient Greece and Rome shows throughout the symbolism of the U.S., from the architecture of iconic Washington, D.C., buildings to the scales of justice.

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