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Delegating Sovereignty: Jean Bodin on the Rights of Magistracy

Thursday Lecture Series

dateDecember 6, 2012 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

It is a point of conventional wisdom in public and international law that sovereignty is fundamentally non-delegable. In support of this doctrine, legal theorists have often appealed to the authority of the sixteenth-century French legist, Jean Bodin (1529/30–1596), whose classic analysis of sovereignty is understood to be a prohibition on all forms of delegated authority. But, as Dr. Lee argued in this paper, Bodin not only developed a doctrine of delegated sovereignty, but also actively advocated the permanent delegation of sovereignty as essential for securing stability and justice in governing the modern state.

Dr. Lee's talk explored the Roman law origins of Bodin’s delegation doctrine in early modern debates on legal rules governing delegation of magisterial authority in Justinian’s Digest. Bodin adopted a surprisingly familiar position advocating the delegation of imperium through the legal constitution of permanent impersonal offices of government, acting on behalf of the sovereign by way of agency. In this way, magistrates turn out not to be personal servants of the sovereign authority, but rather ‘trustees’ of sovereign rights belonging to an impersonal legal order.