2b: What\’s it all About?

What exactly is a notary, and where did this job come from?  

History of Notaries

The history of the notary public is a long and distinguished one. Believe it or not, this job has its origin in the civil institutions of ancient Rome. Public officials, called scribes, rose in rank from being mere recorders of facts and judicial proceedings and copiers and transcribers, to become a learned profession prominent in private and public affairs. Some of these were permanent officials attached to the Senate and courts of law, whose duties were to record public proceedings, transcribe state papers, supply magistrates with legal forms, and register the decrees and judgments of magistrates.

Interesting fact:  In the middle ages, there was a person called the “Notary Of The Bedchamber”  these were sometimes asked to witness the consummation of marriages involving royalty or members of the peerage.  I am so glad this isn’t a notary’s role today, aren’t you?  

In the French tradition, and in much of Latin America, notaries evolved to have responsibilities similar to attorneys.  In the United States, except for Louisiana which still has a deep legacy of French law, notaries have primarily become an important part of the legal process.  They are respected as impartial, and they are expected to validate four things:

  • First that the people signing a document are who they say they are – Identification is therefore a critical part of the notarial process.
  • Second, that they are signing voluntarily, in other words without undue intimidation or pressure, not under duress.  
  • Third, notaries are responsible for assuring the signer of a document is aware of the contents of what they are signing.  This last point is confusing for many people, and we will come back this later.  For now, let’s think of it this way, a notary is not responsible for explaining, indeed can get into real trouble explaining the detail of a legal document.  But they should be confident that the person signing for example a power of attorney doesn’t think they are signing an application for a library card!  
  • Finally, notaries need to also evaluate whether someone is capable of understanding the document they are signing.  We will return to these questions later on in this section.  

Some famous notaries

Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain

John Calvin Coolidge Sr.: Father of John Calvin Coolidge Jr., the 30th President of the United States; administered the Oath of Office to his son

Salvador Dalí i Cusí: Father of surrealist painter Salvador Dalí

Jennifer Lopez – Jenny on the Blocksinger, actress, dancer, and producer

Dwight K. Schrute: Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Inc.

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