A General Session of the Council of State is presided over by the Prime Minister or, in his absence, the Minister of Justice. However, since the real presidency of the Council is held by the Vice-President, he usually presides all but the most ceremonial assemblies. This is also done for obvious reasons pertaining to the separation of powers. The current Vice-President is Jean-Marc Sauvé.
Other members of the Council include, by decreasing order of importance:
The Vice-President is appointed by Order-in-Council on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice and is selected from among the Council's department heads or councillors ordinary. Division heads are similarly appointed and selected from among the councillors ordinary.
Councillors ordinary, masters of requests, and senior masters are appointed based on seniority from the preceding rank. Appointees from outside the Council may include administrative law judges or may come from outside the justice system. Masters are recruited from among the graduates of France's National Administration Academy. The Council sits in the Palais Royal located in Paris.
The Council is divided into 7 divisions:
The Council of State originates from the 13th century by which time the King's Court (Curia regis) had split into three sections, one of which was the King's Council (Curia in consilium, later Conseil du roi), which too broke up into three distinct parts: the Conseil secret 'Privy Council', the Conseil privé 'Private Council', and Conseil des finances 'Council of Finances'. Reorganized under Louis XIV into two major groupings, it was the Conseil d'État privé, finances et direction that was the direct ancestor of the Council of State. It brought together legal advisors and experts to advise the King on claims against the Crown. Officially established in 1557, this was the largest of the King's Councils made up of France's High Chancellor, lords of peerage, Ministers and Secretaries of State, the Comptroller-General, 30 Councillors of State, 80 masters of requests, and the Intendants of Finance. The judicial portion of the Council was known as the Conseil d'État privé or Conseil des parties.
The kings, who had the power to dispense justice and hand down judgments as the court of last resort, delegated this judicial power to royal courts and parlements. But the French king still retained the power to override them at will. Specifically, French kings maintained their privilege to decide major issues and hand down judgements when administrative acts were in dispute. The judgments of the King’s Council of State were regarded as being issued under the King's residual proper jurisdiction (justice retenue), that is, the sovereign's reserved power to dispense justice in certain matters. Legal advisors also assisted the King in developing new laws and, by delegated jurisdiction, directly exercised sovereign rights (jura regalia).
The current Council of State was established by the French Consulate government in 1799 as a judicial body mandated to adjudicate claims against the State and assist in the drafting of important laws. The First Consul (later Emperor) presided over Council sessions, and the Council performed many of the functions of a Cabinet. After the Bourbon Restoration, the Council was retained as an administrative court but without its former prominence. Its role was more precisely defined by an 1872 Act of Parliament.
Certain types of statutory instruments must be examined by the Council and receive its advisory approval, including:
The Council's advisory workload is divided between its administrative sections with respect to the ministry or department affected by the government order.
The Council acts as the supreme court of appeal for administrative law courts. It hears both claims against national-level administrative decisions (e.g., orders, rules, regulations, and decisions of the executive branch) and appeals from lower administrative courts. The Council's decisions are final and unappealable.
While strictly speaking the Council is not a court, it functions as a judicial body by adjudicating suits and claims against administrative authorities. Plaintiffs are represented by barristers drawn from the Senior Court bar whose members are licensed to argue cases before the Council and French Supreme Court; any such barrister bears the title of Counsel at Senior Court (avocat aux Conseils).
The Council hears cases against decisions of the national government, e.g., government orders, ministerial rules and regulations, judgments handed down by committees, commissions, and boards with nationwide jurisdiction, as well as suits concerning regional and EU electoral matters.
The Council of State evaluates how well regulations and administrative decisions comply with higher sources of law, i.e., the Constitution, higher administrative decisions, the general principles of law, statutory law, and international treaties and conventions. Much of France's substantive administrative law is not codified or laid out in statute form, but instead derived from administrative case law, primarily by the Council.
The Council has full discretion to adjudicate on the legality of any executive branch decision except for the very narrow category of "acts of government" for which it considers itself forum non conveniens. The Council has judged that such acts are restricted to:
In this role, the Council provides a powerful check on the actions of the executive.
The Council of State has appellate jurisdiction over local election judgments from any of the 37 administrative courts. It has final appeal jurisdiction for decisions originating from any of the eight appellate administrative courts, meaning that it hears cases in which the plaintiff argues that the appellate court ignored or misinterpreted the law.
Like nearly all French courts, the Council's court system is inquisitorial, and proceedings are initiated by a statement of claim detailing the factual background of the case and why the appellent should be granted relief. The Council then begins a formal investigation, asking the appellee, i.e., the government or a government agency or office, to satisfy the Council with a detailed statement of defense. Burden of proof does not lie with the plaintiff; instead, the Council decides whether or not the appellent has cause to bring suit and whether the government was in error if information provided by the appellent is sufficient to locate previously undisclosed evidence. Of course, both parties may submit additional pleadings and information until the case is ready for final judgment.
The formation of judgement depends on the importance of the case, for the jurisprudence and the interest of the law. All of the formations belong to the Administrative Claims department.
The small cases (without new legal issues) are treated by one under-department (sous-section). There are 10 under-departments. The bigger cases are for the united under-departments (sous-sections réunies), concerning two under-departments (for some important fiscal cases, three or four under-departments can be concerned, into a special formation, the "full fiscal" (plénière fiscale). The more important cases are for the administrative claims department judgement formation (Section). Only the very important cases, with hard, new and important legal issues are concerned. There are about between 20 and 40 cases per year into this high formation. This formation concerns the president of the ten under-departments, the three assistant-presidents of the administrative claims department and the president of the department (plus the magistrate responsible of the investigation about the case, then 15 members).
The major cases are resolved by the administrative claims assembly (Assemblée du contentieux). All the presidents of departments are there, under the presidency of the Vice-President of the Council of State. Less than 10 cases per year are concerned.
All the cases, even the ones eventually resolved by the Assemblée du contentieux, are first studied by an under-department.
Although the procedure is written, one of the highlights of the judgement is the oral conclusions of the rapporteur public (public magistrate), giving his personal vision of the case, totally impartial and free, on a pure legal point of view. The reading of the old conclusions is often useful to understand the mind of the judges and the reason of the solution given to the case (precision : the judges are not bound by the conclusion : they are free to not follow them).
Since an order of 2009 (n° 2009–14, 7 January 2009), there is a possibility to speak after the rapporteur public. The lawyers use this possibility only for the major cases, when it is really useful (e.g. for the Hoffmann-Gleman case – 16 February 2009 – concerning the indemnisation of the daughter of a deported Jew during the World War II because of the French state's responsibility).
In some cases, there may be some confusion as to whether a case should be heard before an administrative law court or judicial court, in which case the Court of Jurisdictional Disputes, or tribunal des conflits, sat by an even number of State councillors and Supreme Court justices and chaired by the Minister of Justice, is convened to decide to whom the matter shall be vested.
Exercising judicial review over almost all acts of the executive branch, the Council of State's judgments may be of considerable importance, often not for the actual case judged, but for its importance in shaping legal interpretation. While France is a civil law country and there is no formal rule of precedent (stare decisis), lower courts follow the jurisprudence constante doctrine with regard to the Council of State. The Council's major rulings are collected into law reports and commented on by scholars; the Council's official website carries a list of comments on important decisions. The Council has shaped its own legal doctrine which consists mostly of principles deduced from cases but incorporates considerable jurisprudence derived from statutes.
Rulings are named for the moving parties (appellents) in the cases and under highly formal courtesy titles. Men's names used to be preceded by Sieur, women's names by Dame or Demoiselle, and widows were referred to by their husband's name Dame veuve.
About 10,000 rulings per year are given by the Council of State.
The most important rulings are collected in a publication called "G.A.J.A" (i.e. Les Grands Arrêts de la Jurisprudence Administrative – The major rulings of the administrative jurisprudence -), published by Dalloz editions and written by some of the most influential authors or judges of the time in France (e.g. Bruno Genevois or Prosper Weil). The GAJA explains about 120 rulings, from 1873 to now, and quotes several hundreds of other important rulings.
Important rulings include:
The Council of State is linked to the French Institute of Administrative Sciences (IFSA). The vice-president of the Council of State is the president of the IFSA and its main members are state councelors. In 2009, the Council of State hosted IFSA's annual conference which was organized on the theme: "public security : partnership between public power and private sector."