Zeitschrift Aufsätze

Dolores Freda (Università degli Studi di Napoli “Federico II”)*

Rise and fall of a superior court: the Sacro Regio Consiglio v. the Consiglio Collaterale

1. A state of conflict: the Sacro Regio Consiglio and the great tribunals of the Reign of Naples

1The Sacro Regio Consiglio, the Gran Corte della Vicarìa and the Regia Camera della Sommaria were established by the Aragons since mid-15th century, following to a political process of centralization of jurisdiction started already by the Normans in the 12th century and followed first by the Svevis and then by the Angevins in the following centuries. The superior courts of the Reign of Naples – together with the Consiglio Collaterale, created during the Spanish Viceregno at the beginning of the 16th century – attended by trained, professional judges, extremely powerful and often conflicting between each other in a complicated and often contradictory relationship, were destined to survive until mid-18th century1.

2The Sacro Regio Consiglio was the most powerful and authoritative court of the Neapolitan Reign. Although the exact date of its foundation is uncertain, legal historians agree that such a supreme court was established between 1444 and 1449 by Alfonso of Aragon, who wanted to reorganise the tribunals of the Reign hierarchically2. The supreme court probably originated from an ancient Consilium Principis, initially formed by lawyers and members of the aristocracy close to the king and endowed with advisory and judicial powers, then specialized – thanks to the refinement of its judicial powers and to a slow process of exclusion of the noblemen occurred between the 15th and 16th centuries3 – in a real court of justice attended by trained, professional judges. Since 1533 the court, presided over by a President, was divided into two Aulae, each formed by four legum doctores, chosen between the most learned and appreciated lawyers of the Reign, who usually took the decisions of the most difficult cases junctis Aulis4. The President had the power to assign the cases, after a previous and summary examination of their content, to the judges: hence a wide power on his part to steer the activity of the court. In addition to the President and the other judges, a Secretary, five Officers and a Porter of the Secretary Office were also part of the court.

3The Sacro Regio Consiglio had a wide competence in first instance in the civil matter: it judged all trials concerning the feudal matter and all cases of difficult solution exceeding the value of twenty-five ounces. All the remaining cases were decided by the inferior courts of the Reign (the provincial Udienze and the Courts of Barons) and by the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa as a court of appeal. Then it was possible to resort to the Sacro Regio Consiglio only as a further and final degree of jurisdiction. The superior court could not judge cases concerning the political matter, normally decided by the Consiglio Collaterale, and trials concerning financial and fiscal interests, judged by the Regia Camera della Sommaria. For what concerns the criminal matter, the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa had a general competence in first and second instance, so it was possible to resort to the Sacro Regio Consiglio only after a pronouncement on its part. Nevertheless, should any trial concern the crimen lesae majestatis or should it be particularly serious, the supreme court had full jurisdiction over it.

4Such a complicated relationship between the supreme courts of the Neapolitan Reign gave often rise to conflicts of jurisdiction. The Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa, formed by five judges (a President and four jurisperiti), divided into two «Udientiae» − one civil and one criminal −5, had, in addition to the already mentioned general competence in first instance in the criminal matter, an exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by public officers6. Besides, it judged in matter of imprisonment, revolts and atrocious crimes. The supreme court was also endowed with extraordinary powers: it could recur to torture and sentence to death. For what concerns the civil matter, the great tribunal had a concurrent competence with the Sacro Regio Consiglio as a court of first instance for the city of Naples and, at the same time, as an appellate court for the decisions of the provincial Udienze7. Against the decisions of such a great tribunal it was possible to resort to the Sacro Regio Consiglio but, although the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa was hierarchically subjected to the Sacro Regio Consiglio – at least theoretically – (it was subjected to the Regia Camera della Sommaria and to the Consiglio Collaterale too), there were frequent conflicts of jurisdiction between the two superior courts in practice as their competences were often crossing.

5The Regia Camera della Sommaria, presided over by a Luogotenente, formed by lawyers and accountants (the Razionali) and, since 1596, divided into two sections or «rotae»8, had, on its part, an exclusive jurisdiction in administrative and financial matters9. The court not only exercised a broad power of control over the activity of the other courts in the financial field, but extended it also to the civil and criminal matters: should the Internal Revenue act as plaintiff or defendant in a trial discussed in any other court, the case had to be referred, subject to invalidation, to the Regia Camera della Sommaria. Besides, a prammatica (statute) enacted in 1595 established that in presence of an (even slight) financial interest on the part of the Internal Revenue in a trial discussed at the Sacro Regio Consiglio, the Regia Camera had the right to send the Avvocato fiscale or one of its procurators to take part in the hearings: without the presence of such a magistrate, no effective decision could be taken by the superior court10. Last but not least, the Regia Camera della Sommaria was an appellate court for the decisions of all the inferior courts in matter of public finance, while against its decisions it was possible to resort to the Sacro Regio Consiglio. The limits of the competences of the Sacro Regio Consiglio and of the Regia Camera della Sommaria – often concurrent − were not entirely clear, so clashes of jurisdiction were quite frequent between them11.

6Finally the Consiglio Collaterale, a king’s council formed by some of the best lawyers of the Reign and endowed with judiciary and advisory powers, established in 1504 during the Spanish Viceregno12 in order to balance the (almost unlimited) power of the Vicerè13 and composed by two “sections”14, saw its powers and functions so much increased during the first half of the century (also in correspondence to the gradual decadence of the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa), that in practice the tribunal become the supreme political, legislative, jurisdictional, military, financial and administrative authority of the Neapolitan Reign. As such a supreme court exercised judicial, consulting, and chancery functions, it was consequently destined to “fight” against the Sacro Regio Consiglio for the exercise of jurisdiction. In particular, with time (since the beginning of the 17th century) the Consiglio Collaterale tended to become a sort of superior court of appeal for all the decisions of the Sacro Regio Consiglio − despite the formal supremacy and independence of the last one from any other court − and of all the other great tribunals of the Reign, whose judgments were subjected to its control. So conflicts of jurisdiction become very frequent between the two superior courts, each willing to affirm its own praeminentia in the Neapolitan legal system.

2. «Nunc est decisus per sententiam regis cum Consilio, quae facit jus universale in Regno»

7Such a complicated relationship − and consequent conflicts − between the supreme courts of the Neapolitan Reign was determined by the many, various and overlapping sources of law coexistent in the Reign: roman-canon law, jura propria, jus Regni, custom (consolidations of norms of various origins, the so called ritus followed by the courts, reputed as ratified and collected by the sovereign himself, and consequently considered equal to leges15), legislation (in addition to the Liber Augustalis and the capitula of Angevin origins, a huge number of statutes or prammatiche16, chronologically stratified in a hypertrophic production and growth of norms, were in force), together with doctrinal opinions and judicial precedents of all ages and provenience17. Each normative source could indifferently discipline actual cases discussed in court within a complicated, overabundant, chaotic, overgrown and unknowable system, which allowed a large use of discretion on the part of the great tribunals. In any case, the superior courts would not permit the imposition of a predefined graduation of the legal sources by any external authority: being they the supreme representatives of the monarch, they considered themselves as implicitly legitimized to a sort of permanent and authentic interpretation of law18. It should not be forgotten that the decisiones of the great tribunals of the Neapolitan Reign were also called constitutiones Regni Neapolis, which clearly demonstrates that the decisions of the superior courts (with particular reference to the Sacro Regio Consiglio) were considered as being a fundamental and constituent part of the jus Regni19.

8In particular, the decisions of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, formed by expert legum doctores, enjoyed a jurisdictional praeminentia on every other court of the Reign. The supreme court had, infact, wide interpretation powers as it represented the sovereign, judged nomine regio and, consequently, its authority was considered equal only to the authority of the monarch, while its decisions were regarded as an authentic interpretation of law. The same title “Sacro” referred to the tradition of the direct administration of justice in court by the sovereign ex divina potestate: hence the sacredness of the judges who judged «tanquam Deus». The “sacredness” of the court referred also to the informality of the procedure followed by the great tribunal, which had to conform exclusively to veritas, aequitas and conscientia. In practice, thanks to its large discretionary and equitable powers delegated to it by the monarch, the Sacro Regio Consiglio was able to administer justice «de plano, sola facti veritate inspecta»20, without any strict observance of the jus commune and the statute law21.

9The decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, as pronounced by the court «sub nomine Regiae Majestatis»22, were considered final and incontrovertible, i.e. they could not be challenged through ordinary remedies23. Against a decisio of the court it was only possible to resort to the extraordinary remedy of the reclamatio, in order to claim the revision of the judgment on the part of the same judges who had pronounced it (although the revision process did not stop the execution of the legal effects of the decision itself). In particular, the decreta delivered by the Sacro Regio Consiglio «junctis Aulis» (i.e. by the two Aulae joined together in case of «maxima causae cognitio») were reputed legally binding. Besides, the authority of the supreme court’s judgments was so increased in case of analogous decisions in similar matters, that the usus fori of the great tribunal were directly regarded as legally binding: according to the common practice of the binae judicaturae, a double analogous decision by the Sacro Regio Consiglio would lead to the creation of a real consuetudo judicandi, bringing about the consolidation of a coherent and constant jurisprudential trend or stylus curiae within the Reign.

10In fact, the decisions delivered by the Sacro Regio Consiglio were considered legally binding not only for the great tribunal itself, but also for all the inferior courts of the Reign, which were bound to uniform their judgments to the decisiones of the supreme court (even if contra legem!), being such decisions pronounced by technically and professionally superior doctoresjuris24. Should the inferior courts not adhere to the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, the last one could issue a summon and decide the cases per saltus or, alternatively, it could recur to the jus corrigendi, acting in appeal against their judgments or, finally, it could declare the injustitia or nullitas ipso jure of a decision pronounced by an inferior court «contra stylum» or even «contra jus commune»25. In fact, although no rule of stare decisis had been formally affirmed, and although the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio were not officially regarded as sources of law, the court tended to consider them as bearing vis legis in practice and, consequently, as being binding for the future. In conclusion, the decisions of the Sacro Regio Consiglio played the role of real sources of law: the jurisdiction of the supreme court theoretically included the potestas condendi leges26.

11The theory of the vis legis of the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio − which were published in numerous collections widely circulating inside and outside the Neapolitan Reign27 − originated a topos in the juridical culture destined to be adopted by most of the European superior courts of the 16th century. Nevertheless, and although there is general agreement as to the undisputed jurisprudential character of the jus commune, the binding vis legis of the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio in practice has been recently questioned by legal historians, who have noted the distance between the theoretical authority of judicial precedents affirmed by the Neapolitan judges and advocates (as, e.g., Matthaeus De Afflictis in primis) and the real judicial practice of the court, and the presence of a gap between lawyers’ theories and real legal practice.

12In particular, scholars highlighted the ideological character of the Neapolitan lawyers’ insistence on the binding authority of the judicial precedents of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, aimed to celebrate and increase the powers of the superior court and of the corporation of lawyers. To such a theoretical affirmation corresponded, in practice, the absence of any official theory of the vis legis of its judgments, the private and unofficial status of the collections of decisiones, their doctrinal character (sometimes they resembled more to tractatus than to reports of cases, with a prevailing attention on the part of their authors for the abstract and theoretical aspects of the cases than for the decision, very often missing), the frequently contradictory content of the supreme tribunal’s decisions, and the usual recourse by the superior court to the practice of the révirement (i.e. the faculty to change its judicial trend and contradict its previous decisions thanks to its sovereign powers)28. For the same reasons, notwithstanding the recognized existence of the obligation to adhere to the stylus of the Sacro Regio Consiglio on the part of the inferior courts, the difficulty to apply this rule in practice has been noted by legal historians, who tend to believe that such a rule was applied only approximately. In conclusion, it seems that the Neapolitan lawyers’ theories corresponded more to an ambition of the doctores than to reality: in fact, such theories appear to be abstract, self-praising and continuously contradicted by judicial practice, while the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio appear to enjoy only a limited authority in practice29.

13It is also necessary to take into consideration the absence of any duty to express the reasons (i.e. the ratio decidendi or legal grounds) of its judgments on the part of the Sacro Regio Consiglio – the vota expressed by its judges were, infact, to remain secret −, and the consequent difficulty to hold its decisiones as judicial precedents binding for the future. The great tribunal (together with the Senati of Northern Italy), was not required to give reasons for its judgments: being a “sovereign” court, it asserted that it was not bound to give account for its judgments, formally because it boasted of administering justice in nomine principis, who kept the law in scrinio sui pectoris – hence, again, the sacredness of its decisions – but, as a matter of fact, to preserve its power and autonomy in order to be able to escape, in this way, from the monarch’s control30. The duty to express the reasons of its decisions was imposed upon the Neapolitan great tribunal only in 1774, but in fact it was only in force for fifteen years31.

3. The Sacro Regio Consiglio v. the Consiglio Collaterale

14The great power and authority of the Sacro Regio Consiglio were destined to be rescaled between the 16th and the 17th centuries. As we have seen, the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa, notwithstanding the strong powers exercised and the large number of trials managed, was reputed to be subjected to the Sacro Regio Consiglio (although such a subjection expressed, at the same time, a functional dialectic between the two great tribunals). The fact itself that two out of the five judges of such a superior court were to be members of the Sacro Regio Consiglio too contributed to give credit to the decisions of the great tribunal; besides, before deciding in matter of perjury, the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa had to wait for a special licentia by the Sacro Regio Consiglio; furthermore, when the Sacro Regio Consiglio sent to the Gran Corte della Vicarìa the file of a case so that the court could act in appeal, it specified in details all the future legal deeds that the great tribunal had to carry out. Finally, if it is true that the ritus of the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa applied to all the inferior courts of the Neapolitan Reign, this represented only the heritage of an old preeminence, more formal than actual: in fact, the supreme court, which could theoretically impose its stylus to the inferior courts, was not able to exercise control over their activity in practice.

15Things were different for what concerns the relationships between the Sacro Regio Consiglio and the Regia Camera della Sommaria. As we have previously seen, already in mid-16th century in the Reign of Naples there was in practice a double vertex within the administration of justice: the Sacro Regio Consiglio on one hand, the Regia Camera della Sommaria on the other. The relationship between the two superior courts was almost equal as the Regia Camera della Sommaria, thanks to its peculiar competences in the financial matter, was more autonomous than the other great tribunals and exempt from any procedural subjection to them32. Its decisions, differently from the decisiones of the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa, were more rarely subjected to the revision by the Sacro Regio Consiglio, while only the Consiglio Collaterale could address directives to it. Besides, as we have already seen, the Sacro Regio Consiglio was bound, in case of presence of interests on the part of the Internal Revenue, to adjourn the exam of the cases in court in order to wait for a pronouncement by the Regia Camera della Sommaria over prejudicial matters. Furthermore, both the great tribunals exercised the jurisdiction «coram Rege»; both enjoyed the privilege of an immediate execution of the effects of their decisions; both had to transmit each other the original copy of the legal deeds concerning any trial in matter of finance.

16Interferences between their activity were obviously unavoidable: sometimes the same cases were contemporary discussed in both the great tribunals (while one court judged in matter of private law, the other one dealt with all the aspects connected to the interests of the Internal Revenue); at the same time, the Avvocato fiscalehad the right to take part in every trial celebrated in every other superior court should a prejudice to the Internal Revenue derive from the judgment (although, in fact, the Sacro Regio Consiglio admitted the presence of the Avvocato fiscale only to avoid the remission of the case itself to the Regia Camera della Sommaria). Nevertheless, the two superior courts were competent in and acted within two separated spheres of interest, each autonomous and fundamental.

17The Sacro Regio Consiglio, superior to the Regia Gran Corte della Vicarìa (which was destined to decade during the 16th century) and – at least theoretically − equal to the Regia Camera della Sommaria, was in fact, during the 16th century, the fulcrum of the Neapolitan legal system. And the great tribunal considered itself such a fundamental jurisdictional organ of the Reign that it pretended to exercise the function of arbitersuper partes during the frequent conflicts occurring between the different superior courts, affirming in this way the substantial unity of jurisdiction within the Reign of Naples. Such a situation was destined to change with the establishment of the Consiglio Collaterale at the beginning of the 16th century. Conflicts between the superior courts of the Neapolitan Reign appear to be more frequent between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries in accordance to the will of the Spanish to take advantage of the existing competition between the great tribunals of the Reign in order to increase, in this way, their own political and economical power in Naples.

18In fact, the creation of the Consiglio Collaterale, a council separated from and prevailing on the other superior courts of justice of the Reign, was part of the program and politic of centralization by the Spanish Vicerè33. Consequently, especially thanks to the reinforcement of the judicial “section” of the Consiglio Collaterale (the so called Cancelleria), the balance of powers were destined to change: the powers of the Sacro Regio Consiglio were compressed, while, at the same time, the Regia Camera della Sommaria was radically rescaled in an authoritarian direction (years 1533-40)34. For what particularly concerns the Camera della Sommaria, it was established that the Luogotenente had to be accountable to the Consiglio Collaterale for all his own decisions. Besides, and more in general, although the decisiones of the Sacro Regio Consiglio and of the Regia Camera della Sommaria were formally reputed final, it was always possible to recur directly to the sovereign in order to obtain the concession of the gratia, which meant in practice the possibility to issue an application to the Consiglio Collaterale, who had to pronounce on the matter and who very often jeopardized the previous decisions of the other superior courts. Furthermore, the Vicerè, aiming to exercise control over the judges of both great tribunals, tried to obtain their favor increasing the power of lawyers to the detriment of noblemen, who were finally emarginated from the superior courts35.

19So the Consiglio Collaterale was to become the vertex of the legal system at the end of the 16th century: as it was a supreme council a latere of the Vicerè, it was reputed to be necessarily above the other superior courts and, consequently, above the Sacro Regio Consiglio itself. And the leadership exercised by the last one between the 15th and 16th centuries was destined to pass to the Consiglio Collaterale during the 17th century. The subjection of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, partially deprived of its authority by the Consiglio Collaterale, gave place to harsh conflicts and, consequently, to a strong rivalry between the two great tribunals. In practice, three supreme courts remained in Naples: first, the Consiglio Collaterale, above and at the head of all the other great tribunals of the Neapolitan Reign, then the Sacro Regio Consiglio and, finally, the Regia Camera della Sommaria, both in a “subjected” position to the first one36.

20In any case, a tempering between old and new judicial organs seemed to take place, a sort of acceptation of the old structure, together with an exercise of control over it on the part of the new organ, the Consiglio Collaterale, to which the best functions and powers of the previous one, the Sacro Regio Consiglio, were to be transferred. But in fact, if it is true that the Consiglio Collaterale was devoted to the exercise of the political and administrative powers, while the Sacro Regio Consiglio was deputed to the administration of justice, the last one was frequently subjected to a turnover and moving of its personnel and to new appointments, which was a clear affirmation of a principle of mobility expressing the subjection of the great tribunal to the sovereign37. The President of the Sacro Regio Consiglio, whose powers would be dramatically reduced during the 17th century − in 1632 a decree issued by the Consiglio Collaterale denied that he could decide cases, establishing that he could only supervise their instruction –, together with the judges of the superior court, tried and defend their role and dignity complaining and fighting against the continuous abuses practiced by the Consiglio Collaterale: the Collaterale often intervened, regardless of the existence (or not) of any competence on its part, in cases already examined and decided by the Sacro Regio Consiglio, inhibiting in fact – thanks to the issue of a bill of nihil innovare – the exercise of jurisdiction on the part of the great tribunal and causing, consequently, delay and inefficiency in the administration of justice in the Reign.

21In conclusion it appears that the Sacro Regio Consiglio, created as the expression of the power of the king during the Aragonese Reign, started losing its great authority at the end of the 16th century, when the political and judicial powers, personified by the powerful Reggenti of the Cancelleria, mostly passed to the Consiglio Collaterale, an organ endowed with a strong political and legislative character. So the Sacro Regio Consiglio, initially born as a political organ, then specialized in a superior court of justice deciding cases in nomine Regis, still formally remaining the supreme jurisdictional organ of the Neapolitan Reign, was finally forced to use its powers to claim its own authority against the powers now exercised by the Consiglio Collaterale.

Aufsatz vom 12. September 2016
© 2016 fhi
ISSN: 1860-5605
12. September 2016

  • Zitiervorschlag Dolores Freda, Rise and fall of a superior court: the Sacro Regio Consiglio v. the Consiglio Collaterale (12. September 2016), in forum historiae iuris, https://forhistiur.de/2016-09-freda/