The first seven federal councillors from Vaud were active in the legal profession. Illustration by Marco Heer.
The first seven federal councillors from Vaud were active in the legal profession. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Legal era in the canton of Vaud

Seven of the first 36 federal councillors came from Vaud. And all of them were lawyers. This is not surprising, as jurisprudence was highly valued in the west of Switzerland.

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.

The increasing power of the Savoys from 1247 onwards and the introduction of an administration by bailiffs and tax collectors, who often followed written orders, intermingled with the already complex oral jurisdiction of the various lords in the Vaud region. To make matters even more complicated, the same law did not apply everywhere and in some cases there was even competition between the different legal systems. Lawyers trained in Roman law at distant universities were the exception at the time: according to the Germanic custom of earlier times, a "civilian" advocate was favoured for representation in court. In the historical sources, these advocates are referred to as "Vorsprecher".
In the 14th century, there was a break. At this time, legal scholars who were very familiar with written law moved from southern cities to Vaud. This was fortunate, as the plague threatened a huge loss of oral knowledge. The great wave of the plague spread up the Rhône from 1347 and wiped out notaries, scribes, lawyers and public prosecutors. The Bishop of Lausanne, Aymon de Cossonay, had the common law written down in 1368 in order to preserve and better enforce the city's law. His Plaid Général, as the Lausanne town charter was called, was written in the middle of a health crisis. It is an important source for medieval researchers in western Switzerland, as it lists customs that are often very old.
Seal of Bishop Aymon de Cossonay of Lausanne.
Seal of Bishop Aymon de Cossonay of Lausanne. e-periodica
Two years later, on 15 May 1370, the bishop also adopted the regulations of the Brotherhood of Saint-Nicolas, the patron saint of all paralegals and lawyers. This confraternity united not only the experts in canon law, which had the force of law for the church order, but also the few lawyers with a lawyer's title and the scribes of common law. This first lawyers' guild thus arose from the distinction between advocates and lawyers. The lawyers, who were still rare during the Savoy period, easily gained prestige during Bernese rule. From 1536 onwards, the representatives of Berne organised the heterogeneous corpus of official documents and customs that had shaped the everyday life of the Vaudois until then. However, it was only with the end of the Ancien Régime and the establishment of the modern state after the Napoleonic era that the legal profession in Vaud gained in importance at both a social and political level.
Bernese troops conquer Vaud. Woodcut by Johannes Stumpf from 1548. Zentralbibliothek Zurich
Thus, the 19th century was a period characterised by the law in Vaud. A period of many great ideas and several smaller projects. The body of law grew steadily and widened the gap between the cities, as centres of academic knowledge and home to experts in decrees and paragraphs, and the countryside, which was still largely anchored in tried and tested traditions. However, this legal abundance also catapulted numerous lawyers onto the political stage, not only cantonally but also nationally from 1848 onwards. Thus, an attentive observer at the end of the century would probably have realised without great astonishment that the canton of Vaud was the most frequently represented in the Federal Council, with federal councillors such as Henri Druey, Louis Ruchonnet, Constant Fornerod and Victor Ruffy.
Federal Councillor Henry Druey was a member of the first Federal Council.
Federal Councillor Henry Druey was a member of the first Federal Council. Swiss National Museum
Louis Ruchonnet was in the federal government for almost twelve years. He died in 1893 during a meeting of the Federal Council.
Louis Ruchonnet was in the federal government for almost twelve years. He died in 1893 during a meeting of the Federal Council. Swiss National Museum
This is how Vaud shaped the Federal Council in the 19th century. Even before Zurich or Bern. Of the 36 members of government elected in the 19th century, 7 came from Vaud. And all of them worked as lawyers. All in all, this Vaudois influence at federal level is a fairly logical result of the intense activity of the canton's founding fathers and their successors over the course of the century, who transformed the new state into a huge legal workshop. Criminal law, fundamental rights guaranteed by successive constitutions, tax law, land law, commercial law, administrative law - all aspects of the law were repeatedly reconsidered, debated, reaffirmed and contested during the long political duel that liberals and radicals fought for decades. Unsurprisingly, the lawyers were the biggest advocates of the new laws. The symbolic crowning achievement for the Vaudois excellence in the field of law was the establishment of the Federal Court in Lausanne based on the Federal Constitution of 1874.
The Federal Court in Lausanne in a photo from 1898.
The Federal Court in Lausanne in a photo from 1898. Swiss National Museum
On 25 November 1880, a vote was held on a bill for the bar regulations which, according to tradition, was very far removed from the debates between the two political camps in the canton. This was followed five years later by the Vaud Constitution, which adopted the principle of the separation of church and state in order to comply with the provisions of the Federal Constitution of 1874.

The fateful year 1898

18 years later, history was made all over the world. At the beginning of the year, Zola published his open letter "J'accuse...!", which was to divide France; on 10 September, Empress Elisabeth of Austria was assassinated in Geneva and on Saturday, 10 December 1898, the Spanish-American War ended with the Peace of Paris. On the day that the American and Spanish diplomats signed the treaty that drove the Spanish out of the New World and gave the USA a colonial empire, the 40 lawyers of Vaud founded a representative professional association to be represented in the newly founded Swiss Bar Association.
The assassination of Sisi, depicted in a drawing.
The assassination of Sisi in Geneva in 1898 shook the world. Wikimedia
In October 1898, the association, consisting of Zurich, Bernese, Lucerne, Basel and Geneva societies, set itself the goal of establishing cantonal sections in those cantons in which law firms had not yet organised themselves. Led by Auguste Dupraz (1832-1906) and Louis Berdez (1839-1905), the longest-serving Vaudois lawyers who were regarded as luminaries by their colleagues, the Vaud Bar Association was officially founded on 10 December 1898. It was also the starting signal for a modernisation of the supervision of the profession. Auguste Dupraz was appointed the first president: President and not Chairman! This had been the wish of the founders, which they had expressed in Article 4 of the Chamber's statutes. They undoubtedly preferred the association terminology to the guild terminology. In the first half of the 20th century, the increasing competition between lawyers and other legal practitioners at both Vaudois and federal level fuelled the feeling of defending the profession, which led to a more elitist attitude on the part of the Chamber. Internal debates thus repeatedly centred on both the title of the presiding judge and the dress code for lawyers during pleadings, as "tradition" was no less important in the 20th century than it had been in previous centuries.
Lawyers in conversation. Painting by Honoré Daumier, 1840s.
Lawyers in conversation. Painting by Honoré Daumier, 1840s. Wikimedia
Despite discussions about titles and dress codes, the Vaudois did not forget another tradition: humanism. During the First World War, the Chamber intervened unofficially on several occasions in favour of Belgian refugees in Switzerland, which triggered protests from some members who invoked neutrality. However, these were nipped in the bud. In March 1917, the former chairman Aloïs de Meuron (1854-1934) even spoke out against the deportation of French and Belgian civilians to Germany in the National Council, where he had held a seat since 1899. He gave a fiery speech reminiscent in spirit of André Malraux's in 1964, which deserves to go down in history: "One must know when moral interests are to be placed above material interests. And to those who are afraid of this, we reply that one must never hesitate to fulfil a moral duty of higher conscience, whatever the consequences may be." This spirit was also evident during the Second World War. The Jewish question led to lively debates in the chamber, particularly between Marcel Regamey, the founder of the Renaissance Vaudoise movement, and the former chairman Charles Gorgerat. In the end, the chamber decided in favour of passive resistance to the prejudices that were supported by many people at the time. However, it was careful not to comment on the measures taken by the Vaudois administration.

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