This text appears in the format of a letter response, on DOJ letterhead, to a request for information.
Revision of Original Letter
Dated 14 February 1992
You have asked for an English rendering of the somewhat enigmatic Latin motto
appearing on the seal of the Department of Justice: "Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur;"
as well as an explanation of how the Department came to adopt the motto and to what
external source, if any, the motto refers. It may come as no surprise to you that
you are not the first to have asked these questions, and that various efforts - none entirely
successful - have been undertaken in the past to arrive at definitive answers.1/
The primary difficulty in ascertaining the precise meaning of the motto comes from the fact
that it is not known exactly when the original version of the Department's seal itself was
adopted, nor is it known when the motto first appeared on the seal. The Act initially
creating the Office of the Attorney General (antecessor of the Department of Justice), 2/ made no provision for the seal for the office.3/ The 1849 Act for Authenticating Certain Records, which provides
[t]hat all books, papers, documents, and records in the...Attorney General's Office,
may be copied and certified under seal...and the said Attorney General shall cause
a seal to be made and provided for his office, with such device as the President
of the United States shall approve...[,]
corrected this omission by providing statutory authority for a seal for the Attorney General's Office.4/ Pursuant to this Act, a seal, supposed to incorporate the Great Seal of the United States, was adopted.5/
Despite repeated and exhaustive research, no record has been found that indicates even the approximate date of creation of this seal, its approval by the President, or its adoption by the Attorney General.6/ A tradition, long prevailing in the Department, that the seal had been devised and the motto chosen by Attorney General Black seems now to be refuted,
for Mr. Black did not become Attorney-General until March 6, 1857, and Attorney-General Cushing in a report to the President dated March 8, 1854, said that the Attorney-General's office "has an official seal...."[7/] It is possible that the tradition is correct to the extent that Mr. Black added the motto to the seal which had been adopted by one of his predecessors. ...It is probable that very soon after passage of the law Attorney-General Johnson devised the seal and President Taylor approved it.[8/]
Soon after the Department itself was established, the President signed into law the
1872 Act Transferring Certain Powers and Duties to the Department of Justice, and Providing a Seal Therefor, which provides:
[t]hat the seal heretofore provided for the office of the Attorney-General shall be the seal of the Department of Justice, with such change in the device as the President of the United States shall approve, and all books, papers, documents, and records in the Department of Justice may be copied and certified under seal....[9/]
According to Easby-Smith,
[t]he seal as adopted by the Attorney-General consisted of the United States shield, with stars (improperly) on the chief, from it an eagle rising, with outstretched wings, bearing in the right talon an olive branch, in the left arrows, beneath which, in a semi-circle was the motto: Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur, and in an outer circle: Attorney General's Office; being, in fact, identical with the present [i.e., 1904] seal of the Department (adopted in 1872) except that in the latter the words Department of Justice appear in the outer circle in place of Attorney General's Office.[10/]
As adopted in 1872, the arms in the Department seal contained several errors and violations
of heraldic laws. First, the shield (or escutcheon) in the Department's seal, said to
be that of the United States,11/ was actually quite different: the shield in the Great Seal of the United States has thirteen "stripes" and the chief
has no stars;12/ in sharp contrast, the shield in the Department seal
of 1872 had only eleven "stripes"13/ and, moreover, did have stars on the chief.14/ Second, the American eagle, for from
being a supporter of the shield as it is supposed to be,15/ actually
(and improperly) surmounts and obscures it and is itself displayed inappropriately.16/
To correct the more serious errors in the Department's original 1872 seal (i.e., those having to do with the devices on the shield itself, but not those relating to the position of the eagle)17/ the President altered the Department's seal on April 27, 1934, on the recommendation of the Attorney General, by ordering the following blazon for the seal:
On a shield paleways of thirteen pieces argent and gules, a chief azure, an eagle rising and standing on the middle of the shield holding in his dexter talon an olive branch consisting of thirteen leaves and berries and in his sinister talon thirteen arrows, all proper. In an arc below the device the motto, "Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur." On an annulet surrounding this device the words "Department of Justice" and three mullets, all contained within a corded edge.
When the device is rendered in colors the background of the seal to be buff, the
shield, eagle, olive branch, and arrows as described above, with the motto and annulet
in blue and the name of the Department, mullets, edges of annulet and corded edge in
The curious obscurity surrounding the origins of the Department's seal makes it difficult
definitively to interpret the motto appearing on it. As I suggested above, no evidence has been unearthed that indicates unambiguously how, why, or when, the Department's motto
was chosen and placed on the seal, or what its exact meaning may be. According to a longstanding (and officially-sanctioned)19/ Department tradition, however, the motto
was suggested to Attorney-General Black by a passage in Lord Coke's Institutes, Part 3, folio 79, which reads thus:
And I well remember, when the Lord Treasurer Burleigh told Queen
Elizabeth, Madam, here is your Attorney-General (I being sent for ) qui
pro domina regina sequitur, she said she would have the records altered;
for it should be attornatus generalis [i.e., (your) attorney general;"] qui pro dominal veritate sequitur.
The first of these phrases is believed to have been quoted by Burleigh from a Latin form then in use (all judicial proceedings were at that time required to be recorded in Latin) in making up the record of actions brought by the Attorney-General on behalf of the Crown. It is translated, "who (the Attorney-General) sues for (or on behalf of) our lady the Queen." "Sequor" is employed in the same sense (i.e., to sue or bring suit) in the Statute of Westminster 2, Chap. 18, as follows: "in elections illius qui sequitur pro hujusmodi debito" (see Coke's Institutes, Part 2, folio 394). In fact our word "sue" comes from "sequor" (See Century Dictionary).[20/]
Dean Pound elaborated upon this story and offered his explanation of the motto thus:
The matter is very simple indeed. The "pro" goes with the noun and the verb. The motto is taken from the commencement of a pleading in a proceeding by the Attorney-General at common law. ...[U]ntil the reign of George the Second, all pleadings were in Latin. The Attorney-General began, "Now comes so and so, Attorney-General, who prosecutes on behalf of our Lord, the King." In the reign of Elizabeth, of course, this would have been "who prosecutes on behalf of our Lady, the Queen." Domina Justitia - our Lady Justice[21/] - was substituted for our Lady the Queen, or our Lord the King. In other words, the seal asserts that the Attorney-General prosecutes on behalf of justice. This would seem a very appropriate motto for the Federal Department of Justice.
I remember reading Mr. Easby-Smith's account of this and it seemed to me very baffling
on this point. The passage in Coke's Third Institute [sic] means that when the
Lord Treasurer introduced Coke as Attorney-General to Queen Elizabeth he said in Latin,
"Here is your Attorney-General qui pro domina regina sequitur", [sic] that is,
who prosecutes for our Lady the Queen[.] Elizabeth, who was an excellent scholar, answered,
"It should be, Attorney-General who prosecutes for our Lady the Truth."[22/]
Other, basically similar, interpretations of the motto - some grammatically suspect, others more or less literal than the foregoing, but none inappropriate to the Department's mission - have been advanced.23/ Notwithstanding such alternative translations, however, following Dean Pound and the Department's immemorial tradition, the most authoritative Department opinion 24/ suggests that the motto refers to the Attorney General (and thus to the Department of Justice), "who prosecutes on behalf of justice (or the Lady Justice)."25
The motto has been variously described as "hopeless: its translation ha[ving] baffled more than one good Latin scholar," James S. Easby-Smith, The Department of Justice: Its History and Functions
14 (1904); "couched in eliptic [sic
] Latin," Letter from Albert Levitt, Special Assistant to the Attorney General, to Roscoe Pound, Dean, Harvard Law School (September 28, 1933); "a never-ending source of speculation," Homer Cummings & Carl McFarland, Federal Justice: Chapters in the History of Justice and the Federal Executive
522b (1937); "a puzzle [whose] translation is disputed," see Sunday Star, February 7, 1937 at __,
col. __ ( and quoting an unnamed Department attorney as saying: "[L]ike other Latin of that period, if it wasn't bad Latin, it certainly was inaccurate."); a "puzzl[e that
perhaps] due to sheer ignorance or to a carelessness [may have caused] a mistake...
in the wording," see Letter from Arthur H. Leavitt, Chief, Division of Department Archives, the National Archives, to Attorney General Cummings (February 8, 1937); a "grammatical construction that defies translation into understandable English," but "not a mere hapless archaic expression, [rather it is] a descriptive expression of
some classical worth," see Justice News (per __ Sanches), at __, col. __; and "a somewhat
strange Latin [that] offers as much of a bafflement to some...as I confess it first
did to me [and that] is one of the great mysteries of the Western world - even
to scholars who know Latin," see Address of Attorney General Thornburgh, 38th Annual Attorney General's Awards Ceremony, Washington D.C. (January 26, 1990 (enclosed herewith).
2/See Act to Establish the Department of Justice, ch. CL, 16 Stat. 162 (1870) (codified as amended at 28 U.S.C. § 501 et seq.).
3/See Act to Establish the Judicial Courts of the United States (Judiciary Act) of 1789, ch. XX, § 35, 1 Stat. 73, 93.
4/ Ch. LXI, § 3,9 Stat. 346, 347.
5/See Easby-Smith, supra note 1, at 14.
6/See id.; Luther A. Huston, The Department of Justice 30 - 32 (1967) ("The files of the Department today do not disclose when the seal was designed, when the President approved it, or precisely when it came into use."); Memorandum re: The Seal of the Department of Justice (per James W. Baldwin, Clerk and Administrative Assistant), File 44-9, at 3 - 4 (January 24, 1930) ("DOJ File 44-9"); Address of Thornburgh, supra note 1.
7/ 6 Op. Att'y Gen. 326, 338 (1854).
8/ Easby-Smith, supra note 1 at 13 - 14; see Huston, supra note 8, at 30 - 32 ("There may have been several types contrived before the [basic design of the seal] now officially in use was adopted."); H.R. Doc. No. 510, 70th Cong., 2d Sess. 12 (1929).
9/ Ch. XXX, § 2, 17 Stat. 35 (codified as amended at 28 U.S.C. 502).
10/Supra note 1, at 14.
11/Id.; see Huston, supra note 8, at 31.
12/ The arms of the United States are found in the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States, originally adopted by the Continental Congress, see Act to Provide for the Safe-keeping of the Acts, Records and Seal of the United States, and for Other Purposes, ch. XIV, § 3, 1 Stat. 68 (1789) (codified as amended at 4 U.S.C. § 41), and are legally blazoned, i.e., described in heraldic language, in pertinent part, as follows:
ARMS. Paleways [i.e., vertically] of thirteen pieces, argent [i.e., white or silver] and
gules [i.e., red]; a chief [i.e., a separate section of the shield, placed atop the previously-described section] azure [i.e., blue]; the escutcheon [i.e., the whole, previously-described breast of the American [bald] eagle displayed [i.e., splayed, with
wings outstretched, and standing] proper [i.e., in its natural colors], holding
in his dexter [i.e., right] talon an olive branch, and in his sinister [i.e., left] a
bundle of thirteen arrows, all proper [i.e., in their natural colors], and in his
beak a scroll, inscribed with this motto, "E pluribus Unum" [i.e., "Out of many, one."].
For the CREST. Over the head of the eagle, which appears above the escutcheon, a glory [i.e., a burst of sunrays], or [i.e., yellow or gold], breaking through a cloud, proper [i.e., in its natural colors], and surrounding thirteen stars, forming a constellation, argent [i.e., white or silver], on an azure field.
REVERSE. A pyramid unfinished. In the zenith [i.e., at the top of the pyramid], an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory [i.e., a burst of sunrays] proper. Over the eye these words, "Annuit coeptis" [i.e., God) has favored our undertakings."]. On the base of the pyramid the numerical letters MDCCLXXVI. And underneath the following motto, "Novus Ordo Seclorum" [i.e., " A new order of the ages."]
22 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774 - 1789 ("Journals") 338 - 339 (1914); see also 5 id. at 689-91 (report of the first committee to devise a seal (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson (who consulted Pierre-Eugene du Simitiere), id. at 517 - 518; 20 Encyclopedia Britannica 128 (1971)), proposing a seal and arms in great part based on Biblical and religious themes and very unlike the current seal and arms of the United States, save for two elements on the obverse of the Great Seal: (1) the concept of a shield itself, and (2) the motto "E Pluribus Unum" (seemingly contributed by Franklin); and two elements on the reverse: (1) the "Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle", and (2) the date MDCCLXXVI"); 17 Journals at 434 (report of second committee to devise a seal (James Lovell, John Morin Scott, William Churchill Houston (who consulted Francis Hopkinson), 20 Encyclopedia Britannica at 128; 16 id at 287), proposing a seal and arms also quite different from the current seal and arms of the United States, save for: (1) the colors [but not the design] red, white, and blue on the shield; (2) the olive branch [without specifying the number of leaves or berries]; and the crest of "a radiant constellation of 13 Stars"); 20 Encyclopedia Britannica at 128 (describing the report of third committee to devise a seal (Arthur Middleton, John Rutledge, Elias Boudinot (who consulted William Barton, who prepared two designs, the second of which was reported out of committee), 22 Journals at 340 n.1), proposing yet another seal and arms also quite different from the current seal and arms of the United States save for: (1) the "eagle displayed" on the obverse; and (2) the pyramid on the reverse); 20 Encyclopedia Britannica at 128 - 129 (describing the design of Charles Thompson, to whom all three previous reports (from which he consciously drew) were referred, 22 Journals at 340 n.1, which design, as modified by William Baron at Thompson's request, was the one finally accepted.) On adopting what are now the seal and arms of the United States, the Continental Congress explained the various devices thus:
The escutcheon is composed of the Chief and pale, the two most honorable ordinaries [i.e., principal, usually geometric, designs on a shield]. The pieces, paly, represent the several States all joined on one solid entire, supporting a Chief which unites the whole and represents [the Continental] Congress. The motto alludes to this Union. The pales in the Arms are kept closely united by the Chief and Chief depends on that union, and the strength resulting from it for its support, to denote the Confederacy of the United States of America, and the preservation of their Union through [the Continental] Congress. The colours are those used in the flag of the United States of America. White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valour and Blue the colour of the Chief signifies vigilance perseverance and justice. The Olive Branch and arrows denote the power of peace and war which is exclusively vested in [the Continental] Congress. The Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers. The escutcheon is borne on the breast of an American Eagle without any other supporters, to denote that the United State of America ought to rely on their own virtue.
Reverse: The Pyramid signifies strength and duration. The eye over it and the motto
allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause. The
date underneath is that of the Declaration of Independence, and the words under it
signify the beginning of the new American Era, which commences from that date.
22 id. at 339 - 340.
13/ Easby-Smith, supra note 1, at 14; DOJ File 44-9, supra note 6, at 6. The thirteen "stripes" in the arms of the United States are also found in the original (i.e. "Continental") flag of the United States, see 8 Journals, supra note 12, at 464, which is basically continued in the current flag of the United States, see 4 U.S.C. §§ 1, 2; Exec. Order No. 10,834, 24 Fed. Reg. 6865 (1959), reprinted in 4 USC. § 1 note. (Curiously, the thirteen stripes in the flag alternate red, white, red, etc (i.e., 7 red stripes, 6 white stripes), see id., while those in the arms alternate white, red, white, (i.e., 7 white stripes, 6 red stipes), see 22 Journals, supra note 12, at 434. The Continental Congress' second committee to devise a seal prescribed diagonal stripes (7 red, 6 white) for the arms. See 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128; 17 Journals, supra note 12 at 434. The third committee (perhaps in conscious imitation of the flag) prescribed horizontal strips. 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128. Thompson's original (i.e., unmodified) design prescribed alternating white and red chevrons, which Barton (perhaps influenced by the already-approved design of the arms of the Admiralty of the United States ("thirteen bars [i.e., vertical stripes] mutually supporting each other, alternate red and white, in a blue field," 16 Journals, supra note 12, at 312) changed into vertical stripes. 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128 - 129.
14/ Easby-Smith, supra note 1, at 14; DOJ File 44-9, supra note 6, at 6. The placement of these stars on the chief also has been criticized as contravening heraldic practice, see e.g., id.; Stephen Friar, A Dictionary of Heraldry 86 - 87 (1987). This criticism is misplaced, however, because a star is not an ordinary, but rather is an heraldic charge,
see id. at 85 - 86, 258 - 60, and as such may be placed on a chief, e.g., id. at 37 - 39 (see especially the blazon of the first augmented arms of Lord Nelson of the Nile); Rodney Dennys (Somerset Herald of Arms), Heraldry and the Heralds 52 - 55 (1982) (see
especially the depiction of the first augmented arms of Lord Nelson of the Nile and the blazon and depiction of the arms granted to Lady Hamilton).
15/See supra note 12, Most interestingly, although it still had the shield on the eagle's breast, Thompson's original (i.e., unmodified) design for the seal of the United States, prescribed that the eagle be shown "on the Wing & rising," rather than "displayed" (i.e., splayed, with wings outstretched, and standing), as had been recommended by the Continental Congress' third committee to design the seal. 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128. Although this posture originally called for by Thompson for the eagle is somewhat unusual and awkward - if not improper - for a supporter in a coat of arms (if only because of its lack of balance and relationship to the shield, which would not appear physically to be supporting), see infra note 16, it is precisely the same posture adopted for the eagle in the Department's arms. The apparent awkwardness of having a supporter "on the Wing & rising" seems to have been mitigated in the Department's arms by changing the position of the shield, so that there is no pretence that the eagle physically supports it.
16/ See DOJ File 44-9, supra note 6, at 6 - 7; Friar, supra note 14, at 330.
17/ It bears noting that at least three of the seven official dies of the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States made since its adoption in 1782 also have contained significant heraldic errors; e.g., die of 1782 (in official use until at least April 24, 1841): six-pointed stars (rather than five-pointed), and olive branch and arrows touching and being obscured by the outside border of the seal; dies of 1841 (in official use until at least November 1877) and 1877 (in official use until at least April 1885): eagle grasping six arrows (rather than thirteen), and crest (i.e., the whole constellation and glory above the motto) touching and being obscured by the outside border of the seal. 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128A - 128 B; 13 Encyclopedia Americana 353 - 354 (Int'l ed. 1983). Notwithstanding appropriations therefor, it seems that no die has ever been made of the reverse. 20 Encyclopedia Britannica, supra note 12, at 128B; 13 Encyclopedia Americana 353.
18/ Exec. Order No. 6692 (1934); see also supra note 12 (explaining the principal heraldic terms used in blazoning these arms). The seal struck pursuant to this Executive Order remains the official seal of the Department and, by order of the Attorney General, is given to the custody of the Assistant Attorney General for Administration. See 28 C.F.R. § 0.146; see also 41 id. (JPMR) § 128-1.5008(a)(1) (describing the flag of the Department of Justice, which contains the Department's seal, as follows: "the ... flag shall consist of a rectangular base background of ultramarine blue, bearing an eagle on a shield, a scroll and the inscription 'Department of Justice.' The eagle faces to the left, with its left claw holding 13 arrows with the tips facing down. Its right claw holds an olive branch. The shield consists of a white base, a blue chief and six scarlet stripes. The scroll shall read in bold blue letters, 'QUI PRO DOMINA JUSTITIA SEQUITUR,'.... The inscription 'DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE' shall be in bold white letters, centered above the eagle. The fringe shall be white." The section also describes the various flags of the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Associate Attorney General, the Solicitor General, and the Assistant Attorneys General).
19/ See, eg., Address of Thornburgh, supra note 1; Cummings & McFarland, supra note 1, at 522b.
20/ Cummings & McFarland, supra note 1, at 522b (quoting D. J. Misc. Bk. No. 22, 353); "The Story of the Seal of the Department of Justice," The Seal of the Department of
Justice 4, 5 (1940) ("The Story of the Seal") (quoting __ Harmon to __ Hopkins (March 27, 1896) in Misc. Bk. no. 22, 535); see Houston, supra note 8, at 31 - 32; Easby-Smith, supra note 1, at 14; Address of Thornburgh, supra note 1.
21/ The Lady (or goddess of) Justice, called by President Washington "the firmest pillar of government," and frequently depicted as a blindfolded woman carrying scales in one hand and a drawn sword in the other, is a Greek mythological character whose name in Latin is Themis. Hesiodic theogony describes her as daughter of Uranus (i.e., Heaven and Gaea (i.e., Earth), and thus, one of the Titans; she was the wife (before Hera) of Zeus, was his constant counsellor, and by him was the mother of the Horae (i.e., the Hours) and the Moerae (i.e. the Fates), among others. See Huston, supra note 8, at 32; 22 New International Encyclopedia 177 (2d ed. 1930); 64 Law Library Journal 249 - 50 (1971); Letter from Rachel Hecht to Attorney General Smith (citing Ivan Sipkov, Chief, European Law Division, Law Library, Library of Congress) (February 18, 1981).
22/ Letter from Roscoe Pound, Dean Harvard Law School, to Albert Levitt, Special Assistant to the Attorney General (October 2, 1933); see Cummings & McFarland, supra note 1, at 522b; see also The Story of the Seal, supra note 20, at 5 - 6 (citing postscript signed "P.A.C." (February 5, 1930) to D.F. File 44-9-2, apparently a later version of DOJ File 44-9, supra note 6, which contains no such postscript); Address of Thornburgh, supra note 1.
23/ E.g., "who pursues (justice) on behalf of Lady Justice (the Queen)," 41 C.F.R. (JPMR) § 128-1.5008(a)(1); Justice News, supra note 1; "who follows or complies or
is in whole compliance with the lady Justice" (i.e., Themis, see supra note 21), see Letter from Hecht to Smith, supra note 21; "who strives after justice for the
sovereign," Letter from Levitt to Pound, supra note 1; "who follows justice as his
mistress," Letter from Leavitt to Cummings, supra note 1; "who follows justice for a
mistress," Address of Thornburgh, supra note 1; "who follows Justice for mistress," or "who sues for the Lady Justice," Easby-Smith, supra note 1, at 14; and "who
prosecutes on behalf of the sovereign power," or "who prosecutes on behalf of the
people," Justice News, supra note 1.
24/See, e.g., id,; Cummings & McFarland, supra note 1, at 522b; but cf. 41 C.F.R. (JPMR) § 128-1.5008.
25/Cf. H.R. Doc. 510, supra note 8, at 78 (quoting Attorney General Sargent's famous dictum (now inscribed in modified form ("The United States wins its case....") over the door to the Attorney General's office in the Main Building in Washington, D.C., see Huston, supra note 8, at 32) that "the United States wins a case whenever justice is done one of its citizens in the courts").