Faith Matters

Pure justice is an idol

Atop the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, Lady Justice presides over a long history of injustices.

The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, known as the Old Bailey after the street on which it stands, is the most famous court in Britain. It’s now a sprawling complex incorporating several courtrooms. Tucked away on a wall near an old entrance is a plaque commemorating an event that took place in 1670.

William Penn was a busy man before he came to America and gave his name to Pennsylvania. He was a leader of the Quakers. At the time they were regarded as an illegal sect, unwilling to cooperate with the established church. Hence they couldn’t meet in any house of worship—so Penn led a worship service for a handful of people on a quiet street. He and a colleague, William Mead, were arrested for taking part in an unlawful and tumultuous assembly.

At their trial, Penn demanded to know on what law he was being indicted. “For where there is no law, there is no transgression,” he said, “and that law which is not in being, is so far from being common, that it is no law at all.” When the judge demurred, saying it took 30 or 40 years to study the common law, Penn added, “If the common law be so hard to understand, it is far from being common.”