Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION V.: The Oaths of Judges. - An Essay on the Trial by Jury
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SECTION V.: The Oaths of Judges. - Lysander Spooner, An Essay on the Trial by Jury 
An Essay on the Trial by Jury (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852).
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The Oaths of Judges.
As further proof that the legislation of the king, whether enacted with or without the assent and advice of his parliaments, was of no authority unless it were consistent with the common law, and unless juries and judges saw fit to enforce it, it may be mentioned that it is probable that no judge in England was ever sworn to observe the laws enacted either by the king alone, or by the king with the advice and assent of parliament.
The judges were sworn to “do equal law, and execution of right, to all the king’s subjects, rich and poor, without having regard to any person;” and that they will “deny no man common right;”* but they were not sworn to obey or execute any statutes of the king, or of the king and parliament. Indeed, they are virtually sworn not to obey any statutes that are against “common right,” or contrary to “the common law,” or “law of the land;” but to “certify the king thereof”—that is, notify him that his statutes are against the common law;—and then proceed to execute the common law, notwithstanding such legislation to the contrary. The words of the oath on this point are these:
“That ye deny no man common right by (virtue of) the king’s letters, nor none other man’s, nor for none other cause; and in case any letters come to you contrary to the law, (that is, the common law, as will be seen on reference to the entire oath given in the note,) that ye do nothing by such letters, butcertify the king thereof, and proceed to execute the law, (that is, the common law,) notwithstanding the same letters.”
When it is considered that the king was the sole legislative power, and that he exercised this power, to a great extent, by orders in council, and by writs and “letters” addressed oftentimes to some sheriff, or other person, and that his commands, when communicated to his justices, or any other person, “by letters,” or writs, under seal, had as much legal authority as laws promulgated in any other form whatever, it will be seen that this oath of the justices absolutely required that they disregard any legislation that was contrary to “common right,” or “the common law,” and notify the king that it was contrary to common right, or the common law, and then proceed to execute the common law, notwithstanding such legislation.*
If there could be any doubt that such was the meaning of this oath, that doubt would be removed by a statute passed by the king two years afterwards, which fully explains this oath, as follows:
“Edward, by the Grace of God, &c., to the Sheriff of Stafford, greeting: Because that by divers complaints made to us, we have perceived that the Law of the Land, which we by our oath are bound to maintain, is the less well kept, and the execution of the same disturbed many times by maintenance and procurement, as well in the court as in the country; we greatly moved of conscience in this matter, and for this cause desiring as much for the pleasure of God, and ease and quietness of our subjects, as to save our conscience, and for to save and keep our said oath, by the assent of the great men and other wise men of our council, we have ordained these things following:
“First, we have commanded all our justices, that they shall from henceforth do equal law and execution of right to all our subjects, rich and poor, without having regard to any person, and without omitting to do right for any letters or commandment which may come to them from us, or from any other, or by any other cause. And if that any letters, writs, or commandments come to the justices, or to other deputed to do law and right according to the usage of the realm, in disturbance of the law, or of the execution of the same, or of right to the parties, the justices and other aforesaid shall proceed and hold their courts and processes, where the pleas and matters be depending before them, as if no such letters, writs, or commandments were come to them; and they shall certify us and our council of such commandments which be contrary to the law, (that is, “the law of the land,” or common law,) as afore is said.”* And to the intent that our justices shall do even right to all people in the manner aforesaid, without more favor showing to one than to another, we have ordained and caused our said justices to be sworn, that they shall not from henceforth, as long as they shall be in the office of justice, take fee nor robe of any man, but of ourself, and that they shall take no gift nor reward by themselves, nor by other, privily nor apertly, of any man that hath to do before them by any way, except meat and drink, and that of small value; and that they shall give no counsel to great men or small, in case where we be party, or which do or may touch us in any point, upon pain to be at our will, body, lands, and goods, to do thereof as shall please us, in case they do contrary. And for this cause we have increased the fees of the same, our justices, in such manner as it ought reasonably to suffice them.”
—20 Edward III., ch. 1. (1346.)
Other statutes of similar tenor have been enacted, as follows:
“It is accorded and established, that it shall not be commanded by the great seal, nor the little seal, to disturb or delay common right; and though such commandments do come, the justices shall not therefore leave (omit) to do right in any point.”
—St. 2 Edward III., ch. 8. (1328.)
“That by commandment of the great seal, or privy seal, no point of this statute shall be put in delay; nor that the justices of whatsoever place it be shall let (omit) to do the common law, by commandment, which shall come to them under the great seal, or the privy seal.”
—14 Edward III., st. 1, ch. 14. (1340.)
“It is ordained and established, that neither letters of the signet, nor of the king’s privy seal, shall be from henceforth sent in damage or prejudice of the realm, nor in disturbance of the law” (the common law).
—11 Richard II., ch. 10. (1387.)
It is perfectly apparent from these statutes, and from the oath administered to the justices, that it was a matter freely confessed by the king himself, that his statutes were of no validity, if contrary to the common law, or “common right.”
The oath of the justices, before given, is, I presume, the same that has been administered to judges in England from the day when it was first prescribed to them, (1344,) until now. I do not find from the English statutes that the oath has ever been changed. The Essay on Grand Juries, before referred to, and supposed to have been written by Lord Somers, mentions this oath (page 73) as being still administered to judges, that is, in the time of Charles II., more than three hundred years after the oath was first ordained. If the oath has never been changed, it follows that judges have not only never been sworn to support any statutes whatever of the king, or of parliament, but that, for five hundred years past, they actually have been sworn to treat as invalid all statutes that were contrary to the common law.
[* ] “Common right” was the common law. 1 Coke’s Inst. 142 a. 2 do. 55, 6.
[* ] The oath of the justices is in these words:
“Ye shall swear, that well and lawfully ye shall serve our lord the king and his people, in the office of justice, and that lawfully ye shall counsel the king in his business, and that ye shall not counsel nor assent to anything which may turn him in damage or disherison in any manner, way, or color. And that ye shall not know the damage or disherison of him, whereof ye shall not cause him to be warned by yourself, or by other; and that ye shall do equal law and execution of right to all his subjects, rich and poor, without having regard to any person. And that ye take not by yourself, or by other, privily nor apertly, gift nor reward of gold nor silver, nor of any other thing that may turn to your profit, unless it be meat or drink, and that of small value, of any man that shall have any plea or process hanging before you, as long as the same process shall be so hanging, nor after for the same cause. And that ye take no fee, as long as ye shall be justice, nor robe of any man great or small, but of the king himself. And that ye give none advice or counsel to no man great or small, in no case where the king is party. And in case that any, of what estate or condition they be, come before you in your sessions with force and arms, or otherwise against the peace, or against the form of the statute thereof made, to disturb execution of the common law,” (mark the term, “common law,”) “or to menace the people that they may not pursue the law, that ye shall cause their bodies to be arrested and put in prison; and in case they be such that ye cannot arrest them, that ye certify the king of their names, and of their misprision, hastily, so that he may thereof ordain a convenable remedy. And that ye by yourself, nor by other, privily nor apertly, maintain any plea or quarrel hanging in the king’s court, or elsewhere in the country. And that ye deny no man common right by the king’s letters, nor none other man’s, nor for none other cause; and in case any letters come to you contrary to the law,” (that is, the “common law” before mentioned,) “that ye do nothing by such letters, but certify the king thereof, and proceed to execute the law,” (the “common law” before mentioned,) “notwithstanding the same letters. And that ye shall do and procure the profit of the king and of his crown, with all things where ye may reasonably do the same. And in case ye be from henceforth found in default in any of the points aforesaid, ye shall be at the king’s will of body, lands, and goods, thereof to be done as shall please him, as God you help and all saints.”—18 Edward III., st. 4. (1344.)
[* ] That the terms “Law” and “Right,” as used in this statute, mean the common law, is shown by the preamble, which declares the motive of the statute to be that “the Law of the Land, (the common law,) which we (the king) by our oath are bound to maintain,” may be the better kept, &c.