The Courts of the Holy Roman Empire
A. High Courts of the Empire:
The Reichskammergericht (Camerae Imperialis Judicium), Imperial
Chamber Court, was created at the Worms Reichstag of 1495. Its initial
purpose was to sit in judgment of violations of the Landfrieden
of 1495, but over time became the main court of the Empire and the guarantor
of imperial law.
The Court consisted initially of a Judge assisted by 16 assessors (a
number increased to 50 in 1648 and reduced to 25 in 1729). The Judge, two
Presidents and one assessor were appointed by the Emperor, the other assessors
by the electors and by the circles of the States of the Empire. The Judge
was noble, or rank no less than a baron. Half of the assessors were noblemen,
the others were doctors of law. The Judge, one President and
13 assessors were catholics, the other President and 12 assessors were
protestants (Augsburg confession). The members, once appointed, were reichsunmittelbar
and could not be removed except by the Court itself. The court also
had 12 advocates and 30 procurators to process cases. Cases were examined
by "senates" of 8 or 9 members, with equal numbers of protestants and catholics.
When the senate was split evenly, additional members were appointed, or
the case was sent to the full Court. In religious matters, members voted
by religion (a procedure called itio in partes). If votes remained
evenly split, the matter was sent to the Reichstag. On some procedural
matters the Court could make interim rulings that had force of law until
an imperial law was published.
The Court was competent in suits against immediate members of the empire,
either in first or second instance; in civil matters involving mediate
members of the empire, as appeals court from local courts (except when
there was privilegium de non appellando, as for territories of electors);
appeals on denials of justice; it could also confirm treaties, testaments,
guardianships among immediate members. It had no jurisdiction over spiritual
matters (including validity of marriages), cases involving major fiefs
or matters of imperial grace, criminal cases involving immediate members.
The court had exclusive jurisdiction over judicial matters involving its
One could ask the Court to review its own rulings, or refer the matter
to a Reichskammergerichtsvisitation, a commission appointed by the
Reichstag to periodically review the Court's activities (initially annual,
these visitations became scarcer after the 16th c.). Ultimately, it was
always possible to appeal to the Reichstag itself.
Maximilian I had only reluctantly agreed to the formation of the Reichskammergericht.
To help him in his direct administration of justice, he established in
1518 a Reichshofrath (Consulium imperiale aulicum),
Imperial Court or Aulic Council, which became accepted as equal to the Reichskammergericht
Contrary to the Court, this body was a creature of the Emperor. It had
a president, a vice-president, and 16 councillors, all appointed by the
Emperor. The imperial vice-chancellor, appointed by the arch-chancellor
(the elector of Mainz) was also a member ex officio, and presided in the
absence of the president. (The vice-chancellor and the president were the
only Imperial Ministers). Members of the Council had to be German nationals,
and the president and vice-president had to be noblemen of the empire (prince,
count or baron). Members could not be removed except by a ruling of the
Council itself, but the death of the emperor automatically brought the
dissolution of the council and the imperial chancery.
The Council had two functions:
as Council of State, to which certain matters of state had to be referred
(the Emperor was free, however, to surround himself with other advisors
in ad-hoc councils, such as a war council or a secret council);
as a high court whose jurisdiction overlapped with that of the Court.
The Council had essentially the same jurisdiction as the Court, and it
was up to the plaintiff to choose where to file his suit. There were other
matters in which only the Council was competent; and there were matters
where the Court's jurisdiction was acknowledged but which were routinely
handled by the Council. Such was the case of criminal cases involving immediate
members, and cases involving imperial favors or concessions.
All matters were decided by the whole Council. In case of split votes,
the president could break the tie, or he could choose to refer the matter
to the Emperor. In religious matters, an even split automatically referred
the matter to the Reichstag. Appeals were handled the same way as for the
Court, except that the right of visitations, in principle held by the arch-chancellor
(elector of Mainz) were never exercised.