The Napoleonic Code in Louisiana
Louisiana law, a short history lesson
Louisiana laws are different than all the other 49 states. If you’ve ever seen Marlon Brando play Stanley in a Streetcar Named Desire, you might remember him telling Stella that we have something in Louisiana called the Napoleonic Code.
“Now listen. Did you ever hear of the Napoleonic code, Stella? Now just let me enlighten you on a point or two. Now we got here in the state of Louisiana what’s known as the Napoleonic code. You see, now according to that, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also, and vice versa. It looks to me like you’ve been swindled baby. And when you get swindled under Napoleonic code, I get swindled too and I don’t like to get swindled…”
Well, Stanley was right. Our system of law in Louisiana has its origins with a short French emperor. To give Bonaparte the credit he deserves, he was not only a brilliant general, he was a brilliant administrator. To be able to govern an empire, he understood a uniform system of law had to be in place. He therefore took existing law, which was largely based on ancient Roman law, and codified it. That is, he put all the law into writing so it could be understood by everyone.
So how are the other forty-nine states different? They all have laws based on English common law. The common law is a system of law that is based on court precedent. Laws and statutes are interpreted, and the ruling of one judge may influence or even control the ruling of another judge.
The Code Napoleon takes the civilian law approach. Civilian law is based on scholarly research and the drafting of legal code which is passed into law by the legislative branch. It is then the judge’s job to interpret that intent more than to follow judicial precedent.
Is there really that much practical difference? Not really. The differences are eroding every day. Much of Louisiana’s codes are being replaced by uniform law to be more in step with other states. This is especially true in the area of commercial law. Louisiana is adopting the Uniform Commercial Code used in other states to keep on a competitive footing with the other states. In other areas, like succession rights, we have steadfastly kept concepts like forced heirship alive.
Yes, Louisiana laws are different
Louisiana is different than the rest of the United States because of Napoleon Bonaparte and our French tradition. Louisiana law is different because in 1821 it was a very forward-thinking system of justice. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that laws based on the Code Napoleon are outdated.
When given a chance to form a system of laws, many new governments have decided to base their system on the very same Napoleonic Code that Louisiana adopted. That was the case with Quebec, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and many Latin American countries.