The oldest European Supreme Court

Pope Johannes XXII ( 1249-1334, Pope from (1316-1334). Photo: Wikipedia.

The Sacra Rota Romana is the oldest supreme court of Europe. Roman law was the authoritative text and the ius commune appeared. European law in the true sense of the word. A new legal science was born, based on the Corpus iuris civilis. The development of ecclesiastical law was more important from an administrative point of view. The Papacy reformed the church to a centralized governing body with a strict legal, administrative and fiscal hierarchy. Ecclesiastical law grew in importance with the power of the church. More and more disputes were decided by the Pope as supreme judge. The increase of cases ( not only a phenomenon of present-day European courts) led to the function of auditor, a learned lawyer who decided on a case. The Sacra Rota Romana emerged.

The court was ‘inaugurated’ on 16 September 1331 by Pope Johannes XXII. The procedures were formalized and written down.  The Auditor invited the parties (represented by procurators) and witnesses and he had an active role in collecting evidence. The process was reported by notaries. The case law of the Rota was collected in the Quaestiones motae in Rota and Decisiones Rotae and were binding for the auditores. The communis opinio developed from this perspective. The decisions of the Rota were distributed throughout Europe and they were authoritative. More than 250 handwritten manuscripts have been discovered.

The most important collection of case law is the Decisiones novae, antiquae et antiquiores. This collection of case law was printed in the 15th and 16th centuries. All supreme European courts and lawyers kept this collection in their library ( for example the Reichskammergericht and the Parlement de Paris). The development of universities and the increasing power of secular princes and towns led to a growing importance of secular law. After the rise of Protestantism, ecclesiastical law lost its prominent position. Even among the catholic monarchs of Spain, France, Austria and Portugal the influence of the Rota diminished.

The Rota underwent various reforms in the course of the following centuries. The competences of the Rota were renewed and written down in 1746. Issues concerning the church and civil law with regard to the papal state and the city of Rome and the court of appeal of local Rotae (the papal state covered a large territory) remained. An important European aspect of the Rota was the cross-European background of the auditors. They came from various European regions, ex omnibus mundi partibus as it was called.

The increasing power of the monarchies led to conflicts between the judiciary of the big monarchies and the Rota. These conflicts lasted until the dissolution of the courts at the beginning of the 19th century. The Sacra Rota Romana played a prominent role in the development of the ius commune and European legal history and the formalized court sessions were an example for the development of procedural law. After the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars the Rota and ecclesiastical law were only relevant for issues concerning the church, but as a European court the Rota remains a benchmark of the development of other European courts. The Rota is still the highest ecclesiastical Judge nowadays. The law is based on the Codex Juris Canonici and centuries of case law. ( Source: Prof. H.J. Becker, Die Sacra Rota Romana in der frühen Neuzeit in Prof. L. Auer, Prof. W. Ogris, Dr. E. Ortlieb, ‘Höchstgerichte in Europa. Bausteine frühneuzeitlicher Rechtsordnungen’ (Cologne, 2007).