Magna Carta's 800th Anniversary
Magna Carta's 800th Anniversary

JURIST Guest Columnist Victor Williams of Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law discusses the significance of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta…

The Magna Carta sealed by King John on June 15, 1215 in Runnymede England is one of the world’s most important legal documents. It has become an ageless symbol of bringing raw power under the rule of law. We celebrate its 800th anniversary.

Receiving a digital-age commemoration, the Magna Carta now has its own Twitter handle: hardly adequate tribute. Even in a form exponentially-longer than 140 characters, it is near-impossible to overstate the importance of the Magna Carta to our nation’s revolutionary founding, to our Republic’s constitutional framing and to our people’s ongoing faith in freedom under law.

Magna Carta Was Foundational to America’s Founding/Framing.

Magna Carta stood for the rights due to all Englishmen. American colonists sailed across the Atlantic, however, reading Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes and John Locke’s Treatises on Government as annotations of the Great Charter. William Penn adopted parts of the Magna Carta (a/k/a the “Great Charter”) for his Province of Pennsylvania’s remarkably progressive governance.

The Declaration of Independence adopted both the Magna Carta’s core thesis and its specificity by listing grievances against the King. The separation announcement, however, was not addressed to an abusive King-in-Parliament, but was broadly published out of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And its articulation of unalienable, Creator-endowed rights were applicable not just to Englishmen, but to all humankind.

The 1787 Framers paid tribute to the Great Charter with the US Constitution‘s structure of separated powers and balanced federalism. Article I enumerated, and thus limited, the bicameral Congress’s national legislative authority. And Article I also implemented novel restrictions on old, oft-practiced governmental abuses: no legislative punishments (attainders), no retroactive acts (ex post facto laws) and no unlimited confinements (habeas writ suspensions).

The 1215 Magna Carta and its influence on English constitutionalism gave a glimpse of the possibility for an executive-in-check. The 1787 Framers knew that the Republic needed a strong executive. The 1781 Articles of Confederation had failed in-large-part because it vested all authority and duty in an incompetent, dysfunctional Congress. The newly independent states had suffered similar bad experiences—legislatures can not govern. In less than a generation (from 1776 to 1787), the Framers were able to largely “move beyond” their King-phobia (the roots of which traced back before abusive King John through King George III). They implemented the idea an executive-in-check. Article II thus creates a president; a single person charged as commander in chief, given appointment discretion to efficiently govern, and trusted with powers to enforce the law. And Article III charges the two political branches to create a Supreme Court and a lower court system staffed with neutral judges placed far above politics. As Magna Carta chapter 45 promises: “We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or other officials, only men that know the law of the realm and are minded to keep it well.”

However Article I allows for the removal of the independent judges and the powerful executive by House impeachment and Senate trial conviction. In accord with the Magna Carta as a transformative instrument, Article V allows a constitution-altering process. It is the Bill of Rights the first 10 of such amendments that most directly enshrines specific Magna Carta chapters. The 1781 Bill of Rights takes Great Charter ideals for due process, jury trials, speedy trials, proportional punishment and property compensation. The 1215 baronial courage mustered to march on London and then personally confront King John’s abuses with Magna Carter finds fitting tribute in the First Amendment’s freedom-guarantees of religion, speech, association and grievance petitioning.

Lawyers Take the Lead in the 800th Anniversary Celebration

Since our founding, Americans have honored the Magna Carta in equal measure as have our English cousins, perhaps with somewhat greater enthusiasm. The American Bar Association deserves particular praise for its long record of Magna Carta reverence. In 1957 the ABA built the first monument at Runnymede.

For the 800th anniversary the ABA launched comprehensive celebration and education programs in conjunction with Mother England’s solicitors, barristers, silks and judges. It is a year-long celebration. US Chief Justice John Roberts‘s 2014 ABA speech in Magna Carta tribute deserves special note.

Over 150 Supreme Court opinions have cited the document; indeed a 2012 Roberts’ religious freedom ruling did so. Odds are low among London bookmakers that there will be another such Great Charter citation in majority and/or dissenting opinion(s) for this Court term’s marriage cases [Obergefell v. Hodges]. One of the better known Magna Carta provisions involved marriage equality and freedom, chapter 8 declared “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband.”

Also celebrating the eight centennial, the Law Library of Congress prepared an exhibit and hosted a series of lectures, and the Cato Institute most recently presented global perspectives of the Magna Carta. Elsewhere however, some academics use the occasion to minimize the Magna Carta’s actual High-Middle-Age impact. They accurately note that King John quickly persuaded Pope Innocent III to annul the document. And snarky New Yorker-type commentators entertainingly write of “Magna Carta myth.”

Yet the renown English historian William Stubbs stated that “the whole constitutional history of England is little more than a commentary on Magna Carta.” In balance is the analysis of the late-Thomas Bingham, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales: “The significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it has said.”

Two American Celebrations in 2015

At the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, 13 million Americans lined up to see an original Magna Carta displayed. Today Americans can easily Google and Twitter to both see the Magna Carta and instantly access historic amounts of information. We can personally plot the inflection point of King John’s capitulation. Together we should all celebrate how much Magna Carta bent—what another King described as —the “moral arc of the universe.” How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. On this side of the pond we also celebrate, in 2015, the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded that march with his “How Long, Not Long” speech. It was delivered on the same Alabama Capitol steps where Governor George Wallace had just two years before pledged “segregation forever.” Again raw power brought under the rule of law.

Victor Williams is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law. He is an attorney in DC and founder of Disruptivejustice.org.

Suggested citation: Victor Williams, Magna Carta’s 800th Anniversary, JURIST – Academic Commentary, June 12, 2015, http://jurist.org/forum/2015/06/12/victor-williams-magna-carta.php


This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Dennis, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org.

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