Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Rota Court Definition:

Medieval Papal and Roman Catholic court.

Justice on continental Europe, circa 1,000, and where available or enforceable, was dominated by papal courts, called at first the Audience, designed as single-person roving auditor investigating a situation and to reporting back to the Pope for disposition.

Eventually, by the 1300s, the Audience attracted eminent lawyers and judges and formed a roving college or court, the supreme court of  "Christendom".

Under Pope John the 22nd, it was formally constituted and, by 1331, had a settled venue, Avignon, just north of present-day Marseilles in France.

The judges were adorned with capes and sat in judgment in a long hall, with the judicial benches arranged inside a stone circle, from which its more familiar name, the "Rota" (which means wheel), developed and is used as early as 1336. The wheel was chosen as it was then considered to represent order and was nature's perfect shape.

It is also known as the Holy Roman Rota or Rota Romana.

The decisions of the Rota served as a foundation to much of the civil and common law of France and Roman Catholic jurisdictions although not without some suspicion. Barbara Tuchman writes in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century that "every dispensation of the rules, every judgment of the Rota or adjudication of a claim, every pardon... was for sale."

Only the Pope could name its 12 members: 8 from Rome and Italy, 2 from Spain, and 1 each from German and France.

Rota Romana, circa 1300 In criminal matters, at first, the Rota only pronounced as to guilt or innocence but, later, also determined sentence.

By 1490, the Rota began to publish its decisions and the world’s first law reports began. It showed activity in striking down legislation and in resolving property disputes in estate controversies.

The pictured image survives of the Rota's early days and shows 13 judges (called "auditors"), nine with hoods over their heads, on the inside of the stone circle with images of St. Catherine and St. Auguistine on each side, the latter stated to have been the first auditor.

The inscription is S: Collegii Auditoriu Sacri Palacii Apostolici.

The Rota continues to sit today as an appeal court based in Rome, although its jurisdiction is considerably reduced proportionate to the reduction of the geographical jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, and no longer have force of law. One of their functions is to hear applications for church annulment of an adherent’s marriage. Any appearance before the Rota now requires the assistance of specialized lawyer, one well-versed in Canon law.

References and Further Reading:

  • Website of the Rota, at vatican.va/roman_curia/tribunals/roman_rota/
  • Baker, J. H. The Common Law Tradition: Lawyers, Books and the Law, 2000: Hambledon Press of London, England, at pages 117-119.
  • Bouvier, John, Bouvier's Law Dictionary, Vol. 2, 1897, The Boston Book Company, p. 937.
  • Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Ballantine Books, 1987.
  • "Vatican Lawyers Rake in Cash as Widow Wars Go Beyond the Grave", The Independent, January 18, 2005, published at news.independent.co.uk/europe/article15529.ece

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