Trial by Lots

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9 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    For example, in ancient Israel they seem to have resolved litigation from time to time by resort to a kind of holy set of dice, known as the Urim and Thummim, which would be cast to decide who would win a case.

    Just checking: you didn’t happen to go to Yale, did you? Lux et Veritas and all.

  2. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Presuming you’ve yet to read it, Jon Elster’s Solomonic Judgements: Studies in the Limitations of Rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), treats such topics (i.e., Gordian Knots), in particular (and by way of illustration) with regard to child custody cases. It’s a delightful read.

    However, I doubt the dice need be ‘sacred.’ Indeed, it’s perhaps better if we left divine will out of this and chalked it up to fate, chance or luck: all parties might be more accepting of the result!

    [Incidentally, some time ago there was a post on this case at TalkLeft as well]

  3. Nate Oman says:

    “…you didn’t happen to go to Yale, did you?”

    Perish the thought! I went to a law school.

    On the divinity of the dice, I am not so sure. If the outcomes can be ascribed to the inscrutable will of diety you might have a bit more support for the system.

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    But the notion of ‘the inscrutable will of the deity’ does not make sense to agnostics, atheists, humanists, Taoists, Confucians, Buddhists, etc.

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I might have said that dice plain and simple could be accepting to all parties, theists and non-theists alike insofar as the former could still interpret the results as the inscrutable will of their deity, while the latter could asribe the outcome to Fortuna, luck, chance, what have you.

  6. John Steele says:

    Neil Duxbury’s “Random Justice” and Barbara Goodwin’s “Justice by Lottery” deal with justice by lottery. IIRC, in the case recreated in the movie Amistad, the lower court was going to use a lottery to determine which slaves would be returned. Judge Prensell’s decision is an odd mix of justicy by lottery and trial by combat.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    It occurs to me that legal lot casting in the Roman Republic (it was often used to divy up responsibilities between elected magistrates) was prone to chronic manipulation, which — of course — would undermine the fairness and predictability of the system.

    Even under a system of random justice one needs an honest judge throwing the dice it would seem.

  8. arthur says:

    For a judicial ruling order mandating a coin flip to decide which contender would receive a multi-million dollar prize, see Order, Oct. 19, 1998, LaPerriere v. Vesta Ins. Group, No. CV-98-AR-1407-S (N.D. Ala. 1998).

  9. Ron Myers says:

    This method was also used to decide who got to auction off an art collection. See:

    “Rock, Paper, Payoff: Child’s Play Wins Auction House an Art Sale


    Published: April 29, 2005

    It may have been the most expensive game of rock, paper, scissors ever played.

    Takashi Hashiyama, president of Maspro Denkoh Corporation, an electronics company based outside of Nagoya, Japan, could not decide whether Christie’s or Sotheby’s should sell the company’s art collection, which is worth more than $20 million, at next week’s auctions in New York.”

    The rather lengthy url is noted below: