The Quest to Implant the Civilian Method in Louisiana: Tracing the Origins of Judicial Methodology

Author:Vernon Valentine Palmer
Position:Professor of Law
The Quest to Implant the Civilian Method in
Louisiana: Tracing the Origins of Judicial
Vernon Valentine Palmer
It is my great honor to deliver The Tucker Lecture tonight, and
I am humbled by recalling the illustrious figures who have stood at
this lectern in the past.1 None, of course, can be considered more
illustrious than Colonel John Tucker, Jr., himself, whose memory
is so fittingly honored each year by his alma mater. The year 2012
marks the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Coutume de Paris
in Louisiana, and it also marks the 200th anniversary of our
statehood constitution, as well as the founding of our supreme
court. I thought it would be fitting to choose a subject related to
and worthy of the civil law that John Tucker loved. He was (and I
use this word circumspectly) a jurisconsult in the true sense of the
word, a scholar in action, who founded the Louisiana Law
Institute, was virtually its only president for many years, and then
served as its “animateur” until his death. After choosing what I
thought was a fitting topic, I happened to discover that Colonel
Tucker actually taught a course at Tulane for many years entitled
“Civil Law Method and Technique.” I am therefore slightly
intimidated to think what the real master of the subject might have
done with the theme of this Lecture. I want to thank LSU for
honoring him and for allowing me to deliver this Lecture.
In 1832 when Alexis de Tocqueville came to New Orleans
during his famous journey across the United States, he was still
gathering notes for his classic work, La Démocracie en Amérique.
He tells us that he had a conversation with a “very well-known
New Orleans lawyer whose name I have forgotten.”2 The lawyer
that he met is believed to have been Etienne Mazureau, a greatly
admired intellect who spoke four languages fluently and who had
total command of the Spanish–Roman–French laws comprising the
Louisiana legal system. According to de Tocqueville’s notes,
Mazureau spoke about a fateful act of the legislature that was
passed only a few years before:
Thomas Pickles Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Eason Weinmann
Center for Comparative Law, Tulane University.
1. This Article reproduces the text of The 36th Annual Tucker Lecture,
which I delivered on November 17, 2011, at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center,
Louisiana State University.
George Lawrence trans., Yale Univ. Press 1960).
Late in 1828, at the end of a session, a bill was passed
unnoticed repealing these laws [the Spanish laws] in a body
without putting anything else in their place. Waking up the
next day the bar and the judges discovered with horror what
had been done the day before. But the thing was done.3
What was “the thing” that was done and why should the judges
and the bar have reacted with “horror”? What was the historical
significance of that moment in 1828? Some of Mazureau’s
contemporaries apparently feared that this wholesale repeal of
Spanish law was a wholesale disaster, but perhaps they were too
close to the events to grasp its meaning. And what is its relevance
to us today? Many present-day lawyers and students have not
grasped its significance either because its place in history has been
largely forgotten. Tonight, I want to place that act and a series of
other events leading up to it in perspective. I will picture them as
part of a broad quest—indeed, perhaps an unfinished quest—to
implant a truly civilian methodology in Louisiana. My subject may
be historical, but it is not antiquarian; it is ultimately modern and
relevant to understanding the legal system that we have today.
Before proceeding further, I want to explain what I mean by
implanting civilian method. There are many aspects to legal method
and legal reasoning. There are the methods of the legislator, the
methods of the scholar, and the methods of the judge—perhaps
enough to furnish material for ten Tucker lectures. But tonight, I
wish to consider a fundamental objective that I believe is the sine
qua non of all other methodological considerations. It is to ensure
that the Civil Code occupies the center of the system, that it is the
epicenter of civil law reasoning, so that all jurisprudential
development starts with and comes through the Code. This
aspiration is summarized by a famous epigram of Gény’s, as
reshaped by Saleilles: “Au delá du code, mais par le code civil.”
(That is, “Beyond the code, but through the civil code.”)4 The Civil
Code of Quebec claims this central position for itself in a very
forceful first article:
3. Thomas W. Tucker, Interpretations of the Louisiana Civil Codes, 1808–
1840: The Failure of the Preliminary Title, 19 TUL. EUR. & CIV. L.F. 57, 169
(2004) (quoting DE TOCQUEVILLE, supra note 2, at 106).
4. The phrase may be ascribed to Saleilles, who slightly modified Gény’s
approach by turning it around. Saleilles inverted Gény’s expression “par le Code
civil, mais au delà du Code civil” and thus emphasized interpretation taking the
law beyond the Code. See R. Saleilles, Préface to FRANÇOIS GÉNY, MÉTHODE

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