It is important to note the long-standing cultural traditions, minds, and documents that have affected jurisprudence in Texas because these artifacts of the past hold those in the legal profession to the highest standards of integrity and virtue in the present.
One such work is Las Siete Partidas, a beautiful doctrinal letter that is commonly regarded as the most significant law code of the Middle Ages. King Alfonso X of Castile commissioned the compilation and synthesis of various laws into Las Siete Partidas. The Code was first published in 1256, but needless to say, it remained an integral part of Spanish and Mexican law well through the nineteenth century.
This article discusses how the Spanish and Mexican legal culture, through Las Siete Partidas, influenced the Texas Supreme Court. “Judges, justices, and arbitrators do not render decisions in a factual and legal vacuum… their responses reflect the interaction of many factors including cultural heritage and geographic location.”1 A study of the various cultural heritages that impacted the current legal system in Texas features the rich influence of Las Siete Partidas.
Las Siete Partidas is broken into seven parts, and each of the seven parts begins with a letter of King Alfonso’s name. This structure alludes to Aristotle’s teachings that all things are created and divided in seven manners. Seven was a very important number at that time, and still is: seven heavens, seven days of the week, seven liberal arts, seven wonders of the ancient world, etc. Seven was perceived to be a number of God and Las Siete Partidas is “a book for the service of God and the common benefit of nations.” First Partida, Title 1.
The Code begins by explaining its structure and organization, and then states that “these laws are ordinances to enable men to live well and regularly according to the pleasure of God, and also, as is proper, to live a good life in this world…” Such is the calling we as attorneys or officers of the court have, to “enable men to live well and regularly.”
From its inception, Las Siete Partidas influenced Texas law in many ways, particularly in the area of procedure, property law, water land law, and family law. Much of the Southwestern United States was under Spanish (and later, Mexican) rule until the fourth and fifth decades of the 19th century. Texas’ present legal system is based on common law, which was “adopted” (but not entirely) as the law of the Republic of Texas in 1840, and Castillian law.”
A study of jurisprudence of the Texas Supreme Court requires the inclusion of Hispanic culture because “Spaniards, Mexicans, and Tejanos, each a non-English-speaking group, played a significant role in shaping the Texas Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.”
Spanish law has influenced our jurisprudence in many ways, such as:
First, Spaniards living in Texas had to resolve disputes between themselves without the benefit of trained lawyers. As a result, Spaniards were never committed to technical pleadings. Texans for the most part abandoned the English “forms of action” and instead adopted “notice pleading.”
Second, Spaniards did not have a divided court system. Texans followed suit by abandoning “courts of equity” and “courts of law.”
Third, Las Siete Partidas protected debtors by not allowing creditors the right to deprive them of the tools of the trade they needed to carry on a business. Early Texans liked this concept. The Texas exemption statutes track the spirit of the protections first set out in Las Siete Partidas. Fourth, Spanish community property law was retained.
Fifth, Spanish law relating to land title, mineral rights, and contracts, although never fully adopted by Texas courts, has often influenced judicial debate.
Finally, some aspects of Spanish family law have been adopted.
Texas judges still cite Las Siete Partidas as authority for their arguments, sometimes for the majority view and sometimes in dissent. Although these cases are too numerous to mention here, one example may be of interest. Justice Eva Guzman of the Supreme Court of Texas, referenced Las Siete Partidas when she stated in a dissenting opinion that, “Given the historic presumption of the public’s right to use the dry beach, dating back to the days before the Republic, it is hardly definitive that an ordinary grant of the nature of the Jones and Hall grant automatically extinguished all public use of the shore, even when title shifted.” Severance v. Patterson, 370 S.W.3d 705, 746 (Tex. 2012).
Justice Guzman probably relied on the section of Las Siete Partidas that states, “Every man can build a house or a but on the sea shore which he can use whenever he wishes… and so long as he is working there or is present no one else should molest him so that he cannot use and be benefited by all these things.” Third Partida, Title 28, Law 4.
In the end, the noble ends of Las Siete Partidas are visible in today’s laws and policies and are promulgated by attorneys and officers of the court. As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and its influence on American jurisprudence, we should also remember King Alfonso, his noble commitment to the law, and his everlasting contribution to the Texas’ legal system through Las Siete Partidas.