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Happy Birthday, Magna Carta

By Ross Parker
ticklethewire.com
Eight hundred years ago today, a group of rebellious English barons met with despotic King John at Runnymede near the Thames River and agreed to a peace treaty , the Magna Carta. Negotiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the charter was meant to settle an aristocratic uprising over the unpopular king’s tax levies. It lasted two months before it was annulled.

The fact that the Magna Carta failed in its initial purpose has not dimmed its eight century luster as an iconic symbol of freedom and the rule of law. Proponents of measures to assure the rights of individuals over the arbitrary authority of the governments have long relied on the document’s mythic status in Anglo American history.

For most of those eight centuries the Magna Carta has stood for the right of free men to a fair and free trial. What women got out of the charter was the right to inherit as widows and to not be compelled to re-marry against their wishes. All in all, not an insignificant step toward gender equality.

However, during the same centuries historians have questioned the authenticity and significance of the document as a basis for all the principles it has come to stand for. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell referred to it as the “Magna Farta,” a tag that would be considered almost sacrilegious to the constitutionalists in Britain and the United States who reverently consider the document to be the very foundation of our individual liberties.

Nevertheless it remains fashionable to poke holes in the document as having been distorted in order to achieve the ends of centuries of legal reform. They point out that technically the overwhelming majority of its Latin clauses have been repealed, refined, and replaced by subsequent legislation. But these protests are largely ignored by the real world.

Perhaps no groups have relied on the Magna Carta more assiduously than the American colonists and, later, revolutionaries and Constitution drafters. To them the document was the common law basis of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, and trial by jury.

Perhaps its most far reaching provision is the one that promises: “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Moreover, whether by myth or historical reality, the document has come to mean much more than its words and original purpose.

Chief Justice Roberts recently quoted the Magna Carta (“To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.”) in support of the historical basis for the principle of judicial integrity. Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 575 U.S. __ (2015) (upholding a Florida law which prohibited judges from personally soliciting campaign contributions).

In the long journey since the 13th Century, the rule of law has protected us from despotism on one side and anarchy on the other. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors, foot soldiers of the Constitution, can take pride in their important role in building our legal system, case by case, so that all individuals can enjoy fair adjudicative procedures and an equal application of the law. As is carved on the outside of the Justice Department building, “Where law ends, tyranny begins. Law alone can give us freedom.”

Whatever its historical anachronicity, the Magna Carta was a first step in the development of the rule of law, not rule of kings or even men, a process that continues today in every police department, federal law enforcement agency, prosecutor’s and U.S. Attorney’s Offices, in which charges and disputes are considered and resolved.

So if you are searching for a milestone to celebrate this week, you could do no better than to toast the enduring legacy of this ancient document.

 


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