One of the more beautiful and impressive structures in Washington, D.C., is the neo-classical Supreme Court building, located just east of the Capitol. Upon entering the marble columned courtroom, a hallowed place where notions of law and justice have been defined for more than sixty years, one's eyes are inevitably drawn to the frieze that borders the ceiling some fifty feet above. Encircling the courtroom from a lofty perch, as if symbolizing a heavenly host, are the carved images of eighteen great law-givers, ranging from Hammurabi and Justinian to Blackstone. In the very center of the relief, high over the seat of the Chief Justice, is a symbolic figure balancing a rounded tablet containing ten Roman numerals. The image is as unmistakable as the message it portrays: the Ten Commandments, a religious document central to Jewish and Christian faiths, is being offered as a primary source of American law.
It is axiomatic that many of the principles contained in the Ten Commandments are fundamental to the Western legal tradition. Prohibitions on murder, theft, and perjury are found in nearly every legal code. Notions of respect for one's parents and admonitions against adultery are also implicit, if not explicit, in the quasi-legal realm of normative rules that order many societies. Few people, if any, would dispute that the Ten Commandments—and its parallels from other ancient cultures—as well as other directives contained in the Pentateuch of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, inform our notions of right and wrong and, as such, have influenced the development of Western law of which the American legal system is part.