PARLEMENTS. Royal courts of law, numbering thirteen in 1789, the parlements stood at the peak of the judicial hierarchy in Old Regime France. Although they exercised some original jurisdiction, they judged mainly on appeal, both civil lawsuits and criminal offenses. If aggrieved litigants could prove good legal cause, the royal council might overrule their decisions, but normally the parlements judged in final resort. In addition, they exercised broad powers of public administration, such as setting grain prices, suppressing gambling, and controlling book publication.
Of more consequence, the parlements "registered" new laws issued by the king, the source of the law. At its simplest, registration meant that the tribunals transcribed statutes into folio registers, as a permanent record. But from about 1500 all the way to 1789, the parlements, supported by constitutional scholars, claimed that they had the duty to "verify" laws before registering them. Verification entailed deciding if new legislation agreed with divine, natural, and statute law and, especially, custom and precedent.
Any law could easily fail at least one of these tests, especially measures concerning controversial issues such as taxes, religious pacification, and judicial reform. A parlement might table disputed legislation indefinitely, weaken it with amendments, or issue a "remonstrance," a formal protest, oral or written, to the king. Despite various forms of royal pressure, these tactics might well lead to a compromise and sometimes to outright victory for the parlements. As a last resort, the kings would themselves appear in a tribunal, usually the Parlement of Paris, to hold a ceremony called a lit de justice. There the monarch invoked his sovereign power and commanded the parlement to register his law at once. High officials, acting under royal orders, conducted involuntary registrations in provincial parlements, the equivalent of a lit de justice. But the tribunals regarded coercion as an abuse and resisted even the lits de justice, ignoring any troublesome implications about the integrity of royal sovereignty.
The kings, who had created the parlements, also created and sold the offices of the judges who served in them. Starting in the early sixteenth century, monarchs openly marketed new offices when they needed money and then permitted the judges to resell their offices to third parties or bequeath them to heirs. Venal office, the name for this form of property, made the magistrates virtually irremovable and figured prominently in their private wealth. Fearing that an oversupply would cause their offices to decline in value, they invariably opposed the king's efforts to create new judgeships or otherwise to tamper with venality.
THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
Once France entered the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), Louis XIII (ruled 1610–1643) issued an abundance of new fiscal legislation. He created offices in the parlements and tried to extract other monies from the judges. He established provincial intendants, their administrative rivals, almost everywhere. A long period of political tension got under way and rose in intensity even after the king died in 1643, as the regency government (1643–1651) of Anne of Austria increased fiscal and political pressure. The judges, fearing for the traditional political system, helped bring about the rebellion of the Parlement of Paris that led to the Fronde (1648–1653). Sympathetic disturbances erupted in several provincial tribunals, adding to the danger. Although the regency finally prevailed, it relaxed pressure upon the parlements for the rest of the 1650s, having learned not to provoke the tribunals unduly. Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715) more or less adopted this approach in the first years of his personal rule, which began in 1661.
Already in the 1660s, however, the Sun King subordinated the parlements to the royal council for judicial purposes, replaced their historic appellation of "sovereign" courts with the neutral "superior" courts, and regulated the prices of parlementary offices. The Ordinance of Civil Procedure (1667), moreover, limited the use of remonstrances and otherwise curtailed registration powers. In 1673, in a culminating edict, the king required the parlements to register all legislation virtually upon receipt, without amendments and before they could issue any remonstrances. The laws of 1667 and 1673, for the first time in the Old Regime, eliminated the legislative powers of the parlements. Louis XIV, unlike his predecessors, governed without caring much what the magistrates thought. He created a profusion of new offices in the tribunals, extracted forced loans from the judges, and afflicted them with such new taxes as the capitation and dixième. These expedients weakened the judges politically and economically as the eighteenth century began.
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Until mid-century the parlements generally accepted a subordinate role in state affairs, while royal ministers turned influential judges into well-compensated clients. From about 1756, however, the tribunals asserted themselves with more vigor, although never pushing things too far. An unappeasable Jansenist minority in the Parlement of Paris nevertheless longed for real confrontation.
In 1765–1770 that parlement sided with the Parlement of Rennes in the latter's row with Emmanuel-Armand de Vignerot du Plessis de Richelieu (Duc d'Aiguillon), the royal commandant in Brittany, whom the king supported. As the "affaire de Bretagne" worsened, the old grievances of the Parlement of Paris assumed new importance, pro-Jansenist judges saw a Jesuit plot, and factions at Versailles took sides. Chancellor René-Nicolas-Charles-Augustin de Maupeou, heavily involved in factional politics, lost control of the affair and became an audacious, if accidental, reformer. In 1771 he remade the tribunals, suppressing three and drastically reducing the judicial competence of the others. He also cut the number of their judges, again drastically, and abolished venality outright. Louis XV (ruled 1715–1774) backed him unconditionally. This was either reform or despotism, as his critics had it.
Louis XVI (ruled 1774–1792), anxious for a fresh start with the political nation, which largely supported the parlements, reinstated them when he assumed the throne. Time proved this decision unwise. In 1787–1788 the Parlement of Paris, supported by the provincial tribunals, aggressively thwarted the king's desperate efforts, in light of impending bankruptcy, to overhaul his fiscal system. They pressured him into convening the Estates-General, the national representative assembly, hoping that it would somehow liberalize the monarchy. The Estates, convening in 1789, launched the French Revolution and ironically abolished the parlements without regard for their eventful history.
In addition to the Parlement of Paris, by far the largest, the kings had created sister tribunals at Toulouse (Languedoc), Grenoble (Dauphiné), Bordeaux (Guienne and western Gascony), Dijon (Burgundy), Rouen (Normandy), Aix (Provence), Rennes (Brittany), Pau (Béarn and Navarre), Metz (bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun), Besançon (Franche-Comté), Douai (Flanders), and Nancy (Lorraine). In 1789 the number of judges had fallen to well under 1,000, down from a high of 1,290 under Louis XIV.
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John J. Hurt