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What is Prerogative?

Updated on December 4, 2016

Prerogative, in law, is an exclusive or peculiar privilege or power vested in an official body or in an individual by reason of his occupying an official position. Originally in Roman law the term designated a precedence in voting (asked first or before) from which it evolved its present meanings of pre-eminence or special power. As commonly used its meanings may shade from emolument or remuneration to duty or right and can hardly be distinguished from some meanings of these words. Since it is not a technical term nor a word of art, it can be applied to such rights as those granted to an official in addition to his formal compensation, the use of an official car, the right of a Congressman to frank mail, be immune from arrest or to receive medical checkups at a government hospital. In more literary use it may apply to a parent's right to spank a child, marital rights, conjugal prerogatives, and others. At the other end of the scale might lie the provision found in the Constitution of the United States that bills to raise revenue can originate only in the House of Representatives.

Historically the term has been applied particularly to royal prerogatives where the specific content of the term must vary according to whether an Oriental potentate or a constitutional monarch is being discussed, or whether Louis XIV (L'etat c'est moi), a present-day French president, or a sovereign "people" is under discussion. In British constitutional history the term has achieved a very special significance in tracing what is nothing else than the rise and fall of the theory of the divine right of kings. Originally embodied in the person of the king, the kingly prerogatives have been transferred to "His Majesty's Government" starting with the Magna Carta of 1215 and reaching a dramatic peak with the Revolution of 1688. Today the personal exercise of the king's prerogatives is a legal fiction, whether this be the administrative function of delivering the mail, appointing judges, calling or dissolving the Parliament, or declaring war. Governmentally these prerogatives are now very much like the powers of the president and the executive branch of the United States; in another sense all those things done in the name of the sovereign king in England are done in the name of the sovereign people in the United States.


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