The courtroom of the West Virginia Supreme Court was designed by Cass Gilbert, a famous architect from the early 1900s. Gilbert designed the courtroom with a frieze—a wide, decorative band encircling the room near the ceiling. On the frieze he put two quotes, one from Thomas Jefferson and one from Abraham Lincoln. Each of them reinforces democratic ideals and a particular connection to the Mountain State.
The quote from Jefferson reads: “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.”
Jefferson was corresponding with Samuel Kercheval, a Virginia lawyer who was advocating for a convention to rewrite Virginia’s constitution. The push for the convention was driven by a host of factors, including a belief that Virginia’s westernmost counties (which would eventually become West Virginia) were underrepresented in the state legislature. Jefferson, who so eloquently championed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” at the time of our nation’s founding, returned again to those same themes. In Jefferson’s mind, government existed to protect those rights on behalf of its citizens and, so, it was fundamentally important for all citizens to be fully represented in their government.
Lincoln’s connection to West Virginia is well known. West Virginia was born during the Civil War with Lincoln as president. Lincoln was reelected in 1864 and delivered his second inaugural address in March, 1865—only a month before his life was taken by an assassin’s bullet. With the war nearing an end, Lincoln encouraged Americans to remain committed to the course of freedom. There was still work to be done, including the work of healing a broken, hurting nation. How could they possibly complete such a task? “With firmness in the right,” said Lincoln, “as God gives us to see the right.”
These are the two quotes that serve as constant reminders to the justices, the attorneys, and the litigants. We must be mindful of the government’s role as protector of the people and their God-given rights. We must also be willing to stand firm in our commitment to do what is right, guided always by God’s wisdom.