Friday, June 20, 2014

Sawyer on Judicial Corruption and Reform in Early Modern France

Jeffrey K. Sawyer, University of Baltimore School of Law, has posted another item from his backlist, Judicial Corruption and Legal Reform in Early Seventeenth-Century France, which appeared in the Law and History Review 6 (Spring 1988): 95-117.  Here is the abstract:   
In 1614, an angry pamphleteer writing in the name of six peasants described for his French readers how the country was being taken over by lawyers. Legal officials had swelled their purses, bellies, and heads by gobbling up the rest of France; they were like a growing infestation of "leeches," he exclaimed passionately, "that suck our blood right to the bone.'" These judicial parasites were so disgusting that one should not even consider them a part of society; they were a foreign substance "born of putrefaction and living off putrescence."

Although this kind of anger directed at lawyers was common in early modem Europe, the rhetoric can be taken more seriously than usual in early seventeenth-century France. Three important political assemblies, the Estates General at Paris (1614-15), the Assembly of Notables at Rouen (1617-18), and the Assembly of Notables at Paris (1626-27) urgently requested extensive reforms in the administration of justice. Lawyers and judges were well represented at each of these assemblies. Their demands for reform constituted an informed and detailed indictment of judicial corruption, suggesting that reform was in fact badly needed and earnestly desired.

Relatively little attention has been paid by historians to the demands at these assemblies for legal reform, and there are understandable reasons for this neglect. How serious could these public demands have been? Many officials had private financial motives for avoiding legal reform. Moreover, royal officials traditionally feared that the Crown would use the cover of reform to obtain political advantage. The still somewhat mysterious fate of the reform Ordonnance of 1629 (often referred to as the Code Michau) illustrates this problem. Drawn up by Louis XIII's ministers partly in response to both the 1614-15 Estates General and Assemblies of Notables in 1617 and 1626, this vast code was submitted to the parlments for official registration in January 1629. A dispute immediately erupted concerning the alleged right of remonstance - a procedure whereby the parlements would "review" new laws and royal acts before recording them officially into the court record or requesting modifications first. In 1629, the Crown was determined to force the unwilling parlements to register the code before making remonstrances, and the parlements resisted strenuously. In the political struggle that followed, Louis XIII's cabinet and the judges lost sight of legal reform rather quickly, and the code was generally ignored.