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On This Day: Swedish Supreme Court Established 230 Years Ago

Two hundred thirty years ago today, on May 15, 1789, the Swedish Supreme Court was created by a royal regulation (Kongl. Maj:ts Rådige Förordnande för Des Högste Domstol eller Justitiae Revision af den 15 maj 1789).

Kongl. Maj:ts Rådige Förordnande för Des Högste Domstol eller Justitiæ Revision af den 15 maj 1789 [Royal Regulation on Supreme Court and Justice Revision of May 15, 1789], available in Kongl. Placater Resolutioner Etc. [Photo by Elin Hofverberg]

The Swedish king, Gustav III (known as the Masquerade King), abolished the Council of the Realm (Riksråd) and created a Supreme Court which was to consist of twelve men appointed by the king, half from the nobility (frälse) and half nobility (ofrälse). Only eight of the members could preside at one time, and the court needed to be composed of half nobility and half commoners at all times.

Gustavus III, King of Sweden (Published by W. Bent, London, July 13, 1787) [Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division]

The first meeting of the Swedish Supreme Court took place on May 19, 1789.

At the time of its establishment, the role of the Supreme Court was:

  • to review legislative proposals;
  • to review cases; and
  • any other function previously performed as justitierevision (justice revision) by the Council of the Realm.

Over the years, the laws on the Supreme Court have changed, as well as the composition of the court. The following are a few notable changes:

  • Establishment of a Separate Law Council

In 1909, the Swedish Law Council (Lagrådet) was established through an amendment to the Swedish Constitution (Regeringsform). The Law Council was tasked with performing the legislative review functions that the Supreme Court had previously performed. The reason for this change was that the Supreme Court had been overwhelmed with legislative review questions from the Parliament, which took precious time away from adjudicating cases. Today, the Law Council is regulated by the Act on the Law Council (Lag om Lagrådet (SFS 2003:333)).

  • Establishment of a Supreme Administrative Court

Through the same amendment to the Constitution in 1909, a Supreme Administrative Court (Regeringsrätt until January 1, 2011, now Högsta förvaltningsdomstolen) was established to decide issues involving the state departments (i.e., decisions by government agencies).

Members of the Supreme Administrative Court needed to have worked as civil servants and, through their work, gained “insight, experience, and honesty” (17 § 2 st. Regeringsformen, as amended 1909, translation by author). The requirements were different to those for the members of the Supreme Court, who had to be “men with knowledge of the law” (17 § 1 st. Regeringsformen, as amended 1909, translation by author). In addition to possessing these characteristics, two-thirds of the members of the Supreme Administrative Court also needed to be eligible for positions as judges, as prescribed in law.

  • Abolition of the Nobility Requirement

According to legislation enacted in the mid-1800s, half of the members of the Swedish Supreme Court no longer needed to be members of the nobility as of the mid-1800s.

  • First Female Supreme Court Justice

The first female Supreme Court Justice, Ingrid Gärde Widemar, was appointed in 1968. Her biography at the time of appointment is available in the law journal SvJT 1968 (in Swedish). At the time of her appointment, she was a member of the Swedish Parliament (Second Chamber) and a lawyer.  One of her books is also available in the Library of Congress’ collections. Today, the Swedish Supreme Court is made up of 16 Justices (Justitieråd), of which 14 sit on the bench and two serve on the Law Council. Out of the 16 Justices, four are women.

Where to Find Supreme Court Decisions?

Supreme Court decisions are published on the Supreme Court website and in Nytt Juridiskt Arkiv Avd. 1 (the Official Supreme Court Reporter).  Swedish legal precedent can also be searched here.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

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