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The Rights of Sovereignty

General Programming

dateSeptember 30, 2010 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

Daniel Lee’s talk investigated the rule of imprescriptibility in the analysis of sovereignty in early modern political thought: the norm that legal rights of sovereignty (jura majestatis) cannot be acquired by private actors simply on grounds of desuetude. He began by outlining prescription in the Roman law of property governing usucapio, i.e., transfers of ownership by undisturbed possession over time, and went on to explore how prescription was used in medieval legal thought to model the special jural status of sovereign princes.

Unlike ordinary legal actors, whose rights could expire, the rights of the crown were set beyond the scope of time. Thus, the jurists declared, “No time runs against the king.” This background, Dr. Lee argued, framed the major discussions of early modern jurists who studied the concept of sovereignty, such as Bodin, Althusius, Grotius, and Domat. These jurists suggested that the rights of sovereignty were not only indivisible and inalienable, but also imprescriptible. Dr. Lee concluded with observations on the influence of this rule of imprescriptibility in the modern law of nations and the modern liberal theory of individual rights.

  • Daniel Lee Assistant Professor of Political Science University of California, Berkeley