The Eastern District of Virginia and Aesop’s Fables

Every time I go to the district court in Alexandria, I am struck by the relief carved just above the front entrance to the building. I was hoping to find a picture online, but there does not appear to be one. I would snap one with my camera, but, of course, no cameras or photography are allowed near the courthouse. So this tiny image here will have to do — the dark band just above the door in the center is where it is. At the top, it reads in large letters,

JUSTICE
DELAYED
IS
JUSTICE
DENIED

Below the lettering, there is a carving of a hare dashing across the top of the doorway, while just below the hare there is a stodgy tortoise, jutting out from the very middle. The carving is actually rather well done — I like the tortoise, he’s a cool looking little dude. But while aesthetically I appreciate the relief, the intended symbolism behind it continues to mystify me.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia is known as the “rocket docket,” due to the speedy nature of the proceedings brought before it. As of 2008, EDVA had the shortest median time from civil filing to trial of all the 94 U.S. district courts. In that respect, the “Justice delayed is justice denied” quote is an appropriate one to have above the courthouse door.

But I can’t help but wonder who was the mastermind that thought the tortoise and the hare motif would be appropriate. I’m assuming that, in the relief, the EDVA is represented by the hare. But, as pretty much any kid could tell you, the speedy hare lost his infamous race against the tortoise. In the end, slow and steady trumped a rapid-fire rush out the gate.

So… Is the relief trying to say that the Rocket Docket’s speedy trial schedules may be flashier and appear to be more efficient, but in the race for justice, a more methodical and procedurally-focused approach reaches the finish line first? Because that’s how I interpret it.

Of course, maybe the Alexandria courthouse has the more correct interpretation of the fable after all, at least from a classical perspective. Wikipedia has this to say about the story of the Tortoise and the Hare:

As in several other fables by Aesop, there is a moral ambiguity about the lesson it is teaching. Later interpreters have asserted that it is the proverbial ‘the more haste, the worse speed’ (Samuel Croxall) or have misapplied to it the Biblical observation that ‘the race is not to the swift’ (Ecclesiastes 9.11). In Classical times it was not the Tortoise’s plucky conduct in taking on a bully that was emphasised but the Hare’s foolish over-confidence. He really is the better endowed and, knowing this, should not have allowed himself to take up the tortoise’s foolish challenge. From that point of view, those asserting that the story’s lesson is that ‘slow but steady wins the race’ (Townsend) are dangerously wrong, a point that has not been lost on the modern business community.

Perhaps, then, a more proper interpretation of the sculpture is this: continuances and extensive discovery are like naps, and the EDVA, as the hare, has learned his lesson. Accordingly, no more napping is allowed. And your request for a continuance is denied.

-Susan

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