Piso’s justice


Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum, thus I read, as I entered the Court hall for the first time, after enrolling as an Advocate. When I asked my colleague from the law firm, who was taking me around the courts, about the meaning of these words, written in bold letters on the wall behind the dais on which the Judge was sitting, he humorously said that it means this judge is coming to Court in a Fiat car!! Though I won’t blame his ignorance of Latin, immediately on returning to office, I went through the Legal maxim dictionary and learned that it is a Latin legal phrase, translating to “Do justice, let the sky fall,” or “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” The maxim signifies the belief that justice must be realised regardless of consequences.

In De Ira (On Anger), Book I, Chapter XVIII, Seneca tells of General Piso, a Roman governor and lawmaker, ordering the execution of a soldier who had returned from leave of absence without his companion:

You were together when you left the camp, General Piso said, but you have returned alone. Paragraph 33 of Article 55 subsection 17 of the United Military Code is clear: you can only leave the camp if you are with another soldier. You leave together and return together. The consequences of breaking the rules are also clear: Article 213 of the United Military Code says that if you disobey the rules, you die.

The Soldier opened his mouth in protest, but the imperative of obedience had long been drilled into him. Rules were all they had, General Piso said. “The rules were all they had because, without the rules, the enemy would win.” He said this twice a day: at reveille and before the last post. And sometimes, his words mingled with the sound of the bugle in their sleep.

General Piso ordered the Commander to arrest the Soldier and execute him for violating the rule. The soldiers left General Piso in the solitude of his office. From a distance, a bugle sounded the last post.

Then, as the Soldier stood face to face with death presenting his neck to the executioner’s sword, there suddenly appeared the very companion who went missing. The Commander in charge of the execution halted the proceedings and led the condemned Soldier back to Piso, expecting a reprieve. But General Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage and ordered the two Soldiers and the Commander to be led to execution.

And thus he made his edicts:

Firstly, General Piso said, the First Soldier had to die because the sentence had already been passed. Article 33 of the United Military Code was unequivocal. Once the sentence has been passed, the prisoner must die.

Secondly, the General said, the Commander in charge of execution  had to die because he had failed to perform his lawful duty. You know well enough, General Piso said, that Article 345 of the United Military Code states that a soldier who fails to implement a lawful command must die.

And lastly, General Piso said, the Soldier, who went missing, had to die because he had not only returned to camp alone but had also caused the death of two innocent men.

In the subsequent retelling of this legend, this principle became known as “Piso’s justice”, which is when sentences made or carried out of retaliation intentions are technically correct, but morally wrong, as could be a negative interpretation of the meaning for Fiat justitita ruat caelum.



About maheshspeak

I write randomly on law, jurisprudence, polity, travel, food and anything else interesting. You can also visit my personal homepage at maheshsreenivasan.com
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