St. Mary's Law Journal


The words justice and judge have similar meanings because they have a common ancestry. They are derived from the same Latin term, jus, which is defined in dictionaries as “right” and “law.” However, those definitions of jus are so broad that they obscure the details of what the term meant when it formed the words that eventually became justice and judge. The etymology of jus reveals the kind of right and law it signified was related to the concepts of restriction and obligation. Vestiges of this sense of jus survived in the meaning of justice and judge.

Although justice and judge have similar meanings rooted in a shared ancestry, they are not quite the same. There are two reasons for this. First, they are constructed from the addition of different Latin suffixes to jus, and those suffixes had different meanings. Second, justice and judge entered the English language at different times; people began to use the word justice when England’s legal system was different from how it was when they started to use judge. Centuries ago, these two facts combined to make justice refer to one who embodies the law and judge to mean one who speaks the law.

There are more similarities than differences between the words justice and judge, but the differences are important. For example, justices may insist they are not judges, and judges sometimes correct people who call them justices. These distinctions can be difficult to keep straight. Trial and intermediate appellate court judges in most states and in the federal judicial system are called judges, while those on the highest courts are justices. But that is not the case in New York, where some trial judges are known as justices, or in Texas, where intermediate appellate judges are called justices, and some of the highest court judges are judges.

The similarities and differences between justices and judges are not just matters of title or courtesy, they are also important matters of law. A justice of a final court of appeal might make new law through a judicial decision, while another justice might consider this an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative power.

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Daniela Mondragón

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