Illinois Bar Journal

June 2015Volume 103Number 6Page 44

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Magna Carta

The Magna Carta: 800 Years of the Rule of Law

June marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the foundation of the Constitution and the Anglo-American rule of law.

June 15, 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, Latin for "Great Charter." This important date is an excellent day to take a moment to reflect on the Magna Carta as the essence of American legal rights and law practice. At the very least, familiarizing yourself with the "Great Charter" will help when you encounter other attorneys or speak to juries.

Your ISBA Assembly and the American Bar Association have also taken note of this historic date. In celebration, the ABA has planned a four-day series of CLE programs in London. Our assembly passed a unanimous resolution in support of the 800th anniversary (see sidebar) and even authorized the president of the ISBA to designate representatives to attend the ABA Magna Carta celebration in London.

A brief history of the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is hailed by many as an essential pillar of freedom. In essence, it is a bill of rights created by rebellious English barons. The barons were fed up with King John's tyranny in the 1200s.

Among other offenses, King John was known for lecherous assaults on the barons' wives and daughters and for crushing to death a servant accused of plotting against him. He was also known for acquiring and selling off lands left without proper heirs. He would accuse the barons of treason, convict them without a trial, and forfeit their lands.

The Magna Carta was forced upon King John at the point of the sword. It went through several drafts and comprised 63 clauses. The final draft was signed at Runnymede, which was neutral ground because it was far enough from the rebel stronghold in London but not too close to King John's castle at Windsor.

Many of the clauses of the Magna Carta are very specific restrictions upon the King and address particular medieval grievances. For example, clause 35 made the "quarter of London" the measurement of wine, ale, and corn throughout the realm. However other clauses, like 39, arguably the most famous, establish broader rights.

Clause 39 states as follows: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

The Magna Carta was the first successful attempt to bind a divine-right king to an established rule of law. Previous kings were seen as the supreme earthly judges of right and wrong. Any right they gave could be taken away. Despite this widely held belief, the Magna Carta's clause 61 subjected the king to a committee of 25 barons.

Six weeks after King John signed the Magna Carta, the Pope revoked it as antithetical to the divine right of kings. The reaction was civil war. The Pope and King John's attempts to escape the Magna Carta were met with a full rebellion. During the war against the rebels, King John fell ill and died. His heir Henry, John's eldest son of nine, reissued the Magna Carta on November 12, 1216 to restore peace in England.

The Magna Carta in the Americas

The American colonists objected to several British policies in the Americas. Most notably, Americans were upset by statutes that infringed on their promised rights. These statutes, passed by a British parliament in which the colonists had no duly appointed representative, stripped them of their rights as Englishmen. John Adams argued against the Stamp Act of 1765 by charging that it violated the Magna Carta.

"... by that [Great] [C]harter, 'no American shall be assessed, but by the oath of honest and lawful men of the vicinage;' and, 'no freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or be disseized of his freehold, or liberties of free customs, nor passed upon, nor condemned, but by lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land."1

Americans believed the Magna Carta was the Englishman's constitution. It was used to argue against the prosecution of colonists in admiralty court. Colonists claimed that they had a fundamental right to a trial by jury and they were being deprived of it.

Justice Blackstone in his Commentaries of the Laws of England furthered the idea of the Magna Carta as the expression of fundamental, natural rights. He wrote that the "Magna Carta was not the creation of rights given to the people by the king. Instead, it was the written preservation of absolute rights vested in individuals by the immutable laws of nature, or 'Natural Law.'"

Influence of the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta's influence can be seen throughout our United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. The proclamations that all men were endowed by their creator with inalienable rights was rooted in the ideas of the Magna Carta. The writ of habeas corpus, the prohibition against bills of attainder, and a right to a jury trial for all crimes - all included in the Constitution by the framers - can be traced to clauses of the Magna Carta.

The due process clause in the Illinois Constitution can also trace its linage back to the Magna Carta. Illinois has even incorporated the Magna Carta into its statute books.

The celebration

The mega celebration at Runnymede will be June 11-14, 2015. The ABA anticipates Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Family, the English legal community, and 600-800 U.S. attorneys and their guests to be in attendance.

The celebration includes excursions to Runnymede and Temple Church. Temple Church was the meeting place of the barons where they first formulated their demands. Runnymede was the middle ground where the Magna Carta was negotiated. The ABA commissioned a domed rotunda memorial at the spot.

I hope you will celebrate the Magna Carta in your own way by taking this important date in legal history to heart. Further, I hope you will take the flame and message of the rule of law into our Illinois grammar schools, high schools, and colleges. Young Illinoisans should learn about the blood shed for their liberties, their duties as citizens to provide jury duty, the presumption of innocence, and the need for the rule of law.

Stephen M. Komie has been a Chicago trial lawyer for more than 39 years. He serves on the ISBA Board of Governors and the ISBA Assembly. He is the author of the ISBA Resolution commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the ISBA Attorneys' Bill of Rights, which the Assembly forwarded to the Illinois Supreme Court for adoption. The court adopted the Assembly's recommendations as rules for the expungement of inquiries that do not result in complaints against lawyers.

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  1. John Adams & Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, Vol. 3. Boston: Little, Brown, 1851. Google EBook, pg. 467.

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