Abraham Lincoln’s prayer for judges

The letter that presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln wrote to his friend, Congressman Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, on May 21, 1860, is unremarkable, except for a short passage near the end. In those concluding words Lincoln formed a simple, yet piercing, statement of the power, influence, and impact a judicial decision can have—for good or ill—on the lives of those before the court and on others.

To me as a judge, what Lincoln wrote appears to address a concern that sometimes keeps me, and surely many judges, up at night, though judges and the judiciary were farthest from Lincoln’s mind. His words also read like a humbling prayer that talks to my inner-self, though he never intended his words to be taken as a prayer. Nevertheless, Lincoln perfectly captures the soul searching and introspection that often goes along with the inherent subjectivity of judging. First some background about the letter.

Lincoln responded to a note from Giddings congratulating Lincoln on securing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination a few days earlier. Giddings predicts Lincoln will be victorious in November, and advises him to avoid “corrupting influences.”

Lincoln replied to Giddings, “I am not wanting in the purpose, though I may fail in the strength, to maintain my freedom from bad influences. Your letter comes to my aid in this point most opportunely.”

It is Lincoln’s next sentence that reveals a peril I sometimes feel, and succinctly defines the essential character of the noble work that we judges perform. With his customary eloquence Lincoln, invoking divine authority, wrote:

May the Almighty grant that the cause of truth, justice, and humanity shall in no wise suffer at my hands.

Here is a message judges can relate to and endorse, universal in its applicability and utility. A reminder of the ever-present risk of calamity inherent in every decision. A declaration of the depth of obligation that each judge swears to uphold. A recognition that decisions can have real, undesirable implications and consequences, rarely intended or predictable.

Had Lincoln actually served as a judge, deciding questions of legality and justice, of life and liberty, he might have written just such a prayer. (See the accompanying article about Lincoln’s service as a judge pro tem).

Lincoln’s words identify three cornerstones, each intricate, compelling, and unwieldly, but ultimately vital, to courts in a free society. In my view, it is the function and purpose of courts, above all else, to advance, defend, and uphold truth, justice, and humanity.

The “prayer” also suggests that once a judge renders a decision, what occurs thereafter is hardly certain or within the judge’s knowledge. Judges cannot direct the future any more than they can foresee it. Judges can only hope that their rulings elevate rather than impede “the cause of truth, justice, and humanity.”

This “prayer” moves me to be faithful to that which exists in me; to disregard personal sentiment, popular opinion, ideology, or extra-legal considerations in reaching decisions; to make each proceeding as just and fair as possible; to appreciate and respect the human effect of each decision; and to fulfill my responsibilities in a manner that honors truth, justice, and humanity. As Lincoln once said, “It requires more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong.”

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Justice Michael B. Hyman, Chair of the Bench and Bar Section Council, is assigned to Illinois Appellate Court, First District. He has Lincoln’s prayer for judges printed on the face of a large clock on his office wall.

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June 2016Volume 46Number 9PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)