Tribute: Robert Badinter

Robert Badinter (March 30, 1928 – February 9, 2024) was a French lawyer, politician, and author. Best-known for the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981, he studied at Columbia, where he earned a master’s degree in 1949.

February 19, 2024

“Le commandant est mort.” So begins the Le Monde obituary of Robert Badinter (b. March 30, 1928), departed on February 9, 2024. The French lawyer, politician, and author enacted the abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981 while serving as Minister of Justice (1981-1986) under president François Mitterrand.

Following his undergraduate studies in law and literature at the Paris School of Law and the Sorbonne, Badinter received a fellowship from the French government to pursue further studies in the United States. He earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1949. He was influenced by and interested in the U.S. legal system, writing a thesis in 1952 entitled "Les conflits de lois en matière de responsabilité civile dans le droit des Etats-Unis" (The conflicts of laws in civil liability law in the United States). He became agrégé des facultés de droit in 1965 and later was appointed as professor at Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris I) in 1974.

Badinter had a profound interest in history, particularly the French Revolution. In 1989, he returned to Columbia to co-chair a colloquium entitled "The Declaration of Man: France and the United States.” This was organized at the occasion of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and of the U.S. Constitution. Attendees included Louis Henkin (co-chair), University Professor Emeritus and Special Service Professor at Columbia University; Harry Blackmun, Associate Supreme Court Justice; and Pierre Birnbaum, emeritus professor of history at Paris I. (Read a Spectator article from the time.) In a posthumous tribute episode of Le Temps du débat (France Culture), Birnbaum recalled: “He [was] someone deeply attached, fundamentally, to this Revolution, insofar as it established these universalist ideals of emancipation for all citizens, including Jews.”

Throughout his career, Badinter affirmed his identity as "Français, républicain et juif,” a stance reflecting a generation of Jews who benefited from a republican meritocracy post-1791, allowing them access to careers in public office, legal professions, military service, education, and more. Badinter addressed this aspect of French law and history in his work Libres et égaux : L'émancipation des Juifs sous la Révolution française (1789-1791). Born in Paris, he was the son of Russian Jews hailing from Bessarabia in the Russian Empire (today, a region straddling Moldova and Ukraine). His father Samuel (also known as Simon) was deported from Lyon in 1943 by the Vichy regime and killed at Sobibór, a concentration camp in Poland.

Among Badinter's significant legal reforms was the facilitation of compensation for victims of traffic accidents, known as the "Loi Badinter." He also abolished the State Security Court (1981), the Military Courts (1982), strengthened Habeas Corpus (1983), and expanded rights for crime victims. Badinter chaired the commission that reformed the French penal code in 1992, replacing the old Napoleonic Code. From 1991 to 1993, he headed the Arbitration Commission on Yugoslavia, often referred to as the "Badinter Commission." He served as president of the Conseil constitutionnel from 1986 to 1995 and, later, as a senator for the Hauts-de-Seine for the Socialist Party from 1995 to 2004.

On February 14, 2024, president Emmanuel Macron announced that Robert Badinter would be interred in the Paris Panthéon.