High Court’s Big Secret
This article appeared in the December 2006 issue of Citizen magazine.
High Court’s Big Secret
by Stephen Adams, Focus on the Family
Don’t tell the ACLU, but a recent discovery proves the U.S. Supreme Court is a faith-based organization.
One significant milestone totally unnoticed by the Washington establishment this year was the 100th anniversary of the Harlan Bible. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it. The Harlan Bible is a well-kept secret to virtually all but the 50-plus U.S. Supreme Court justices who have signed their names to its flyleaf since 1906, nearly half of all justices who have ever served.
The little-known Harlan Bible is named after John Marshall Harlan, a prominent Supreme Court justice, devout Christian and Sunday school teacher who started the tradition, bequeathing this English Bible to the generations of justices to come. Some of its mystery has been unwrapped by retired Louisiana City Judge Darrell White, a friend of Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama chief justice who was removed from office in 2003 for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse.
Judge White was on a law panel with Judge Moore in Oklahoma City several years ago when a random question about the oath taken by federal judges sent him on a research project that turned up so many curious historical facts that he’s now working on a book about it. In particular, White wanted to know the origin of the phrase “so help me God” in the judicial oath prescribed by the original Judiciary Act of 1789.
There’s also the question of how—in a day and age when secularists have been relentlessly sandblasting God from every appearance in the public—we have seen even liberal justices like Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg collaborating in such a blatantly religious expression in the highest court in the land.
The complete oath is not long: “I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [title] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God. ”
Though not all historians agree, White found a fairly strong consensus: George Washington started it. The first president of the United States uttered those words at the end of his own swearing-in, and the tradition stuck.
Judge White called on an old military acquaintance, retired Brig. Gen. William K. Suter, now clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, for a better understanding. Suter described the process of administering the oath—in the courtroom, with the incoming justice seated in the chair of John Marshall, the high court’s fourth and most famous chief justice.
“And then quite interestingly, Gen. Suter said, ‘And then, they signed the Bible,’ White told Citizen . “And I, as you might imagine, asked, ‘What Bible?’ “
Suter explained John Marshall Harlan’s 1906 bequest and referred him to the Supreme Court curator’s office. From there White obtained photocopies of pages from the Harlan Bible, including the flyleaf bearing the signatures of “every justice without fail” since 1906.
Conscience of the court
John Marshall Harlan was a longtime member of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (USA) of Washington, D.C., perhaps best known as the church that was pastored in the 1930s and 1940s by the famous preacher Peter Marshall.
Harlan’s esteem for Scripture is reflected in this quote preserved by the church: “I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Nothing which it commands can be safely or properly disregarded—nothing it condemns can be justified. No civilization is worth preserving which is not based on the doctrines or teachings of the Bible.”
Harlan was not just one of the longest-serving members of the high court (33 years), but he apparently was also its conscience from time to time, especially on matters involving civil rights. White noted that Harlan played the role of dissenter so often that one contemporary alleged that he suffered from the disease of “dissentery.”
Though from a wealthy Kentucky slave-holding family, Harlan joined both the Union Army during the Civil War and later the party that championed abolition of slavery, the Republicans. He was the lone dissenting vote in the famous 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson , which upheld Southern segregation statutes that allowed “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. In that case Harlan penned the famous words in his dissenting opinion, “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
White noted that it was Harlan’s interpretation of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment that eventually prevailed by the 1960s. He suspects that Harlan, the senior member of the court by 1906, may have been prompted to bestow the Harlan Bible by the changing times when it appeared the biblical basis of America’s justice system was beginning to slip.
“That gesture, I think, should take on significance for in it he was seeking to set a precedent that I think we should follow today,” he said. “For truly, as Ronald Reagan said, ‘If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.’ ”
Judge White, as founder and president of Retired Judges of America, has obtained copies of the same version of the Bible (King James “S.S. Teacher’s Edition”) from a publisher in England. He’s asking retired judges around the country to prevail on sitting judges in their communities to “sign the flyleaf and then perpetuate that custom down through the generations.”
Reclaiming lost ground
“Acknowledgment of God is absolutely inseparable from the American system of justice,” White said. “It really doesn’t take rocket science to follow the logic that the acknowledgment of God is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion, but rather a philosophy of government that goes to the very heart of what America is all about.”
And that’s what oaths are all about. “The idea of an oath was to call a higher power to hold us accountable to perform what we said we would,” White said. In Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 10 Moses’ people are told to “take oaths in His name.”
While Washington chose to add “so help me God” to his solemn presidential oath, Congress firmly affixed that emphatic conclusion to the federal judges’ oath in 1789 and it remains so today. Similarly, the oaths required of all witnesses in court proceedings must be administered “in a manner calculated to awaken the witnesses’ conscience” to the duty to tell the truth, and these customarily end, “so help me God.”
In the Supreme Court, before the justices are even seated on any given day, a marshal bangs a gavel, commands the audience to rise and then declares, “The Supreme Court of the United States is now in session. Let all who have business come near. God save the United States and guide this honorable court.”
The reason judges wear robes and sit high above everyone else in the courtroom is because they judge “in the place of God,” White said.
The retired Baton Rouge judge firmly believes that lost ground, with sufficient effort, can be retaken and that Justice Harlan has shown the way.
“The acknowledgment of God is required by our federal judges,” White said. “If that is so, then why is it unconstitutional for other officials or citizens to acknowledge God?” ***
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