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John Dawson, The Oracles of the Law, French judges, French judicial decisions, French magistrat, Cour de cassation


Comparative and Foreign Law | Jurisprudence


The French legal system, according to its official pronouncements, functions on a rigid conception of the interpretive and creative role of the civil, private law judge. This conception may be thought of as an "official portrait": It is an image or representation of the judge and of the nature of the judicial role. The official portrait, which represents an interpretive ideology that posits a perfectly grammatical mode of reading the legal code, has been the source of much confusion, especially to common lawyers. This portrait's predominance in the French legal system, and its effect on French judicial practice, has never been properly understood, even by the finest American analysis of the French legal system: John Dawson's The Oracles of the Law.

By demonstrating that the official portrait is but the most visible of several conceptions of the judicial role currently operating in the French legal system, this Article seeks to correct the skewed common law accounts of how the French judicial system actually functions. In the process, this Article exposes an entire sphere of French judicial discourse that is kept largely hidden from the general public, and whose very existence requires novel analysis. This Article constructs an "unofficial portrait" of the French civil judge, based on the conceptions of the judicial role prevailing in this hidden discursive sphere. Finally, it examines the effects that the coexistence of the official and unofficial portraits produce on French judicial interpretation, discourse, and rhetoric.

Publication Citation

Published in: Yale Law Journal, vol. 104, no. 6 (April 1995).