Edict Creating "Superior Councils" (23 February 1771)
This edict came at the end of the extended legal confrontation between the parlements and Louis XV. After orders that the judges stop obstructing the work of administration against the actions of the central government failed to halt the magistrates’ defense of local privilege, the decision was made to take even more decisive action. Chancellor René Maupeou was the chief executor of Louis XV’s "coup," which suppressed the parlements by "exiling" the magistrates, thereby eliminating venality of office. This edict established six "superior courts" to replace the Parlement of Paris and was rationalized by the shift that made justice free of charge to those bringing cases. Despite heavy opposition from "public opinion," these reforms were enacted. Even after the death of Louis XV four years later, Louis XVI had to make a decision to recall the magistrates, which he did in 1774, starting a new round of conflict with the judges.
It is with the most painful regret that we have witnessed the officers of our Parlement of Paris commit an act of disobedience that violates the law, their oaths of office, and the needs of the public interest. We have seen them establish the principle of arbitrary suspension of their functions, finally openly granting themselves the right to prevent the execution of our will. To embellish their claims with a specious pretext, they tried to alarm our subjects over their condition, their property, and even the future of the laws establishing the succession to the throne . . . as if disciplinary rule ever extend to threaten these sacred subjects. We are rightfully unable to change these institutions. Their stability will always be guaranteed by the inseparable link that binds us to our people. We have long postponed exercising our authority, hoping that reflection would return our officers to their duties. However, our kindness has only served to increase their resistance and the number of their illegal actions, finally forcing us to choose between punishing them and sacrificing the most essential rights of our crown.
Obliged to provide judges for our subjects, we have first turned to the officers of our council, whose talents, intelligence, zeal, and service have always justified our confidence. Having provided for the immediate needs, we looked forward and have felt that in these circumstances the interests of our peoples, the good of the judicial system, and our very future required reform of the abuses existing in the administration of justice. We recognized that the venality of offices, a result of the adversity of the moment, presented an obstacle to the choice of our officers and often excluded those who, by virtue of their talents and merit, most deserved to belong in the magistracy. We owe our subjects a swift, unsullied, and cost-free system of justice, and the slightest hint of private interest could only serve to offend the sensibilities of the magistrates responsible for maintaining the inviolable rights of honor and property. The excessive size of the jurisdiction of our Parlement of Paris was infinitely harmful to those within its purview who were obliged to leave their families behind in order to come and seek a slow and expensive legal decision. Already exhausted by the expense of their trips and travels, their ruin was assured by the length and multiplicity of the proceedings, often forcing them to abandon their completely legitimate claims. Finally, we have considered that the custom which forces seigneurs to bear the costs of prosecuting crimes committed within the bounds of their jurisdiction was a very heavy burden upon them, sometimes a reason to allow the criminal to escape.
In consequence, we have decided to establish high courts in various provinces whose officers will be freely chosen on the basis of their talents, experience, and ability, and who will receive no pay besides their salaries. In this way, by bringing the judges closer to the people in their jurisdiction, we shall facilitate access to the courts and make them more useful. By simplifying the forms and diminishing the costs of lawsuits, we shall make these courts more beloved by the people. Finally, by showing those lords who dispense justice that it is to their personal advantage to prosecute the guilty and by compensating them for the costs of criminal trials, we shall ensure that our subjects will be peaceful, that the public order will be maintained, and that crimes will be punished. If, in order to carry out these intentions we have been forced to narrow the legal jurisdiction of our Parlement of Paris, we have made it our responsibility to preserve all its rights and prerogatives. As the depository of the law, the parlement is responsible for the promulgation and execution of those laws, for pointing out their weaknesses, and for informing us of the needs of our peoples. Final judge of all questions which involve our crown and the rights of peers and peerage, our parlement will continue to enjoy the most precious sort of prestige, that which is conferred by virtue, intelligence, zeal, and impartiality.
Jules Flammermont, Le Chancelier Maupeou et les parlements (Paris: Alphonse Picard, 1883), 277Ð79.