The Foundation of the Rule of Law
 
Americans look with pride upon the Constitution and its Bill of Rights as the foundation of our democratic principles. But, the footings for that foundation go back 800 years, to the Magna Carta.

By 1215, King John of England was in a bit of a pickle. The Anglo-French War of 1202-1214, where England and France fought for the domination of northern France, ended with a victory by the French in
1214 in the Battle of Bouvines. Returning home to England, King John soon ran into a confrontation with the feudal barons of England who, through taxes imposed on them, financed King John's largely mercenary army. By 1215, fed up with the onerous taxation, rebel barons renounced their allegiance to King John and captured the city of London. In June, 1215, the King and the rebel barons met on a battlefield near Windsor Castle in southern England. It was there, in a town called Runnymede, that the barons made their formal peace with King John and pledged their allegiance to him in return for his acceptance of and seal on a document that came to be known as the Magna Carta, or Great Charter.
 
Viewed as a peace treaty, as it was intended, the Magna Carta was a spectacular failure. Soon after placing his seal on the Magna Carta, King John asked Pope Innocent III, the Overlord of England, to annul it. The rebel barons, in turn, refused to surrender control of London until the terms of the Magna Carta were implemented. By September, 1215 both King John and the rebel barons had repudiated the Magna Carta, leading to the First Baron's War.
 
Viewed as a symbol, as the embodiment of the basic concepts of the rule of law, the Magna Carta has fared much better. The original seal of the state of Massachusetts, engraved by Paul Revere, shows a militiaman with a sword in one hand and a copy of the Magna Carta in the other. The Magna Carta is on the front door of the United States Supreme Court and on the tapestry in the Great Hall at Domus. When World War II broke out, and with England in danger of being overrun, one of the four existing exemplifications of the Magna Carta was entrusted to the United States, being placed ultimately in Fort Knox, Kentucky for safekeeping through the end of the war.
 
Much of the Magna Carta concerns matters important to the rebels barons but with little or no relevance today. And, the Magna Carta was not meant to protect the rights of all people, but rather feudal barons and freemen when most people fell into neither category. Nevertheless, the Magna Carta embodied a number of revolutionary concepts, including the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the right of free citizens to own and inherit property, the right of access to swift justice, and the right to be free from excessive taxes.
 
On a broader scale, though, the Magna Carta embodies the concept of the rule of law through provisions providing for due process and a trial by jury: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled … except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land." And, with a "security clause" providing for a council of barons to ensure King John's compliance with the charter, and allowing the council to take over command of the kingdom in the event of a breach by the King, the concept that no man, including the King, was above the law was first introduced.
 
Recently, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts commented on the impact of the Magna Carta. He noted while the Magna Carta is rarely cited by litigants in the Supreme Court, as citation to it might suggest a dearth of more recent authority, it is still a very important document and an imposing symbol in the development of the rule of law. He added that the most impressive listing of rights he ever saw was not in the Magna Carta or in our Bill of Rights, but in the constitution of the Soviet Union, and made the point that rights can be just words on a piece of paper unless they are supported and defended by those who are governed.
 
This year, as we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we as lawyers and judges are reminded that the Magna Carta is an enduring symbol of the long road leading to the freedoms and rights we enjoy today and of the unique role we have in supporting and upholding the rule of law.

Log In