Editor’s Corner (The Liberum Veto: A Lesson for Lawyers)


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By: Gus Bequai, Esq.*

           Written laws are like spiders’ webs, and with them only entangle and hold… (Anacharsis)

For historians, it is axiomatic that history repeats itself and great civilizations fall largely from within. In the 17th century, Poland was the most powerful and wealthy nation in Central Europe. It was the Poles under King John III Sobieski, who in 1683 defeated the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna; dealing them a military setback from which they never recovered.

Seventeenth century Poland was also one of Europe’s most diverse and cosmopolitan societies. While predominantly Catholic; within her borders also lived Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Budhists, animists, and morer. Living side by side with the Poles, were Cossacks, Lithuanians, Ukranians, Germans, Russians, Latvians, Estonians, Swedes, Mongols, Gypsies, Turks, Bulgars and Roumanians.

Poland was the envy of both her friends and enemies alike. Her Parliament (the “Sejm”), and not England’s, was viewed as the most democratic legislative body in Europe. Yet, by the late 18th century, Poland had become a failed state and was partitioned by her enemies (Russia, Prussia and Austria). She would not regain her national independence again, until the 20th century.

The debate that lingers among historians to this day is, “what caused Poland’s collapse?” and what are the lessons to be learned. While the answers are many; nevertheless, two key factors stand out: the Sejm’s liberum veto (“free vote”) rule; and a political elite that made use of the liberum veto to manipulate Poland’s political process when it suited its interests.

The Liberum Veto

To check the power of her kings, the Polish Sejm enacted a rule called the liberum veto; which gave every member of the Sejm the right to veto any proposed legislation that came before it. Thus, a single member of the Sejm needed only to shout, Sisto activitatem! (Latin: “I stop the activity!”), to derail legislation on its tracks.

No matter how well meaning, by checking royal power, the liberum veto led to serious political abuses; paralyzing the workings of the Sejm. Bribery, extortion and blackmail became the norm; with most members of the Sejm up for sale. In a span of 200 years, the Sejm held 150 sessions; the liberum veto was used to ensure that no legislation was enacted in 50 of those sessions.    

History Can Repeat Itself

Shakespeare’s view of lawyers aside, the legal profession is one of the oldest and most durable in history. Lawyers drafted the first laws and treaties in history; among these, the Code of Hammurabi, Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, Treaty of Kadesh, Magna Carta, Canon and Islamic law and more. Lawyers have been at the forefront of efforts to advance human rights, civil liberties and diversity.

Lawyers have a history to be proud of; without lawyers, civilization would have long since disintegrated into anarchy. They serve as guardians of the law; from their ranks come society’s judges, administrators and legislators. A modern version of the liberum veto, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be dismissed. If enacted, it would erode the political and social edifices on which American democracy rests.  Lawyers need to be vigilant.

*The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author. They are not representative of the Virginia State Bar, it’s Diversity Conference, or Invictus.

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