Cornell Law Review Volume 97 Issue 2

Can the Rule of Law Survive Judicial Politics?

According to legends dating back to the Renaissance, the ermine would rather die than soil its pristine white coat. The ermine so came to symbolize purity, and English judges adopted this symbol by adorning their robes with ermine fur. For their part, American judges took a more ermine-friendly approach, dispensing with the fur but retaining the ermine as a symbol. Wearing the “judicial ermine” thus reflected a commitment to “purity and justice,” and “the abandonment of all party bias and personal prejudice.” The Tennessee Supreme Court captured the essence of the myth nicely in 1872, when it wrote:

We are told that the little creature called the ermine is so acutely sensitive as to its own cleanliness, that it becomes paralyzed and powerless at the slightest touch of defilement upon its snow-white fur. . . . And a like sensibility should belong to him who comes to exercise the august functions of a judge. . . . But when once this great office becomes corrupted, when its judgments come to reflect the passions or the interest of the magistrate rather than the mandates of the law, the courts have ceased to be the conservators of the common weal, and the law itself is debauched into a prostrate and nerveless mockery.

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