Living a Latin Phrase

 Fiat justitia ruat caelum (Let justice be done though it tear down heaven) -Judge James Edwin Horton

In 1931 Alabama, African Americans were, at best, referred to as blacks. Outside of a working relationship, blacks and whites didn’t mingle. Blacks went to black churches and whites to white churches. Blacks and whites were prohibited to marry by law. Mixed couples caught dating in secret faced prompt rebuke and risked violence. Black men convicted of raping a white woman faced the death penalty. Haygood Patterson was one of nine blacks accused of raping two white women on an Alabama freight train.

The nine accused ranged in age from twelve to twenty-three. Patterson was quickly sentenced to death in the electric chair by an all-white jury fueled by racism and vengeance. Many whites believed that Patterson was given more than his share of fairness because he enjoyed a trial rather than the lynching – they believed – he deserved.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court found that Patterson had been denied basic rights including ineffective legal counsel resulting from a rushed trial. 1 The Court ordered that Patterson be given a new trial.

The trial was moved to a new county and James Edwin Horton was picked to be the new judge in the retrial of Haygood Patterson. Judge Horton was generally embraced by the community as a good choice for the retrial. His father had been a judge and a slave owner. Judge Horton and his wife were large land owners and he had been elected as judge by popular vote.

During the retrial, one of the alleged victims admitted that she was not raped. She further testified that Patterson not only didn’t rape her, he didn’t even touch her. Judge Horton also learned that the medical evidence from the earlier trial was controverted. Even so, the jury found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to death.

Patterson’s attorney filed a motion for new trial. Patterson’s attorney was so convinced that the new trial motion would be denied that he did not attend the hearing. On the day of the hearing, Judge Horton entered the courtroom and delivered his order setting aside the jury’s verdict. In particular, he found that the remaining victim’s testimony was racially motivated and unreliable.

When asked about his order, Judge Horton replied, “Fiat justitia ruat caelum.” That is, let justice be done though it tear down the heavens. 2 When he issued his order, Judge Horton might not have known what the lasting impact of it would be. He did know, however, that there was a chance it would cause his personal “heavans” to fall. Judge Horton demonstrates at least three characteristics of nobility:

  1. Personal sacrifice. Judge Horton was stating a personal maxim when he said “let justice be done though it tear down the heavens.” Although his ruling had a societal impact, it came at a great personal cost. Judge Horton’s personal heavens were torn down. After Judge Horton set aside the jury’s guilty verdict, the Alabama Supreme Court removed him from Patterson’s case. One year later, Judge Horton lost his bid for re-election and retired to his farm. He never served as judge again. Nobility often risks personal sacrifice.
  2. No Parade. Books, films and television often portray the climax of the hero’s tale with a parade or some other accolade (medal, award or such). Judge Horton was harshly criticized. His only accolade is a bronze plaque on the south wall of the obscure courtroom where he heard Patterson’s case with the following quote from his order:

So far as the law is concerned it knows neither native nor alien, Jew nor Gentile, black nor white. This case is no different from any other. We have only to do our duty without fear or favor.

   Judge Horton was never given a parade, medal or award.

3. Prudence. Judge Horton didn’t get washed over by the wave of public sentiment. He thought through what he personally observed and examined Patterson’s case from all sides. He weighed all evidence fairly. Nobility often requires judgment different from public opinion.

Acts of personal nobility do not have to be on a scale the size of a capital murder conviction. These three practices of nobility can be lived out in your personal life daily. The next time you have to make a personal decision consider:

  • Do I have enough information from all sides to make a fair decision.
  • Have I guarded against making a decision based solely on what everyone else is thinking or doing?
  • Have I guarded against making the decision based on the accolades I might receive?
  • Have I guarded against making the decision based on solely on personal profit regardless of what it might cost others? 3

Nobility. Nobility in Action. What’s your story?


  1. Read Powell v. Alabama, 287 US 45 – Supreme Court 1932
  2. I have taken here a small license with the translation. The literal translation is: let justice be done though the heavens fall.
  3.  © 2015 Brandon L. Blankenship. All rights reserved.