On June 15, 2015, we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Why do we care? Because the charter principally served to identify and protect rights and liberties from encroachment without due process under the law. As Sir Winston Churchill put it, the barons’ triumph established the “fundamental principle” that “[g]overnment must henceforward mean something more than the arbitrary rule of any man, and custom and the law must stand even above the King.” He continued:
John. S. Skilton, U.W. 1969, is a partner in the patent litigation practice in the Madison office of Perkins Coie. He is a former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
"Effective representation matters because justice matters."
“… This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it. … Now for the first time the King himself is bound by the law. The root principle was destined to survive across the generations and rise paramount long after the feudal background of 1215 had faded in the past. The charter became in the process of time an enduring witness that the power of the Crown was not absolute.”
Perhaps to the chagrin of the British, the Magna Carta can rightly be deemed the bedrock of American Constitutional history. American colonists invoked it in their pursuit of self-rule – somewhat ironically against King George III and the British government. It was a critical influence on Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence, which, like the Magna Carta itself, enumerated the colonists’ grievances against the King.
The Magna Carta can rightly be deemed the bedrock of American Constitutional history.
Our founding fathers also drew on fundamental principles contained in the Magna Carta as they framed our Constitution, most notably the Bill of Rights. For example, the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause nearly mirrors chapter 39 of the Magna Carta, which assured that “[n]o free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Other constitutional guarantees, such as the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on the imposition of “excessive fines,” the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the Suspension Clause’s writ of habeas corpus can likewise be traced to various provisions in the Magna Carta.
Importantly, the Magna Carta’s pronouncements continue to resonate around the world. As retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor aptly notes, “Over the past several decades, more and more countries have established governments embracing the principle underlying chapter 39 of Magna Carta. At least until all people may be secure in the promise that no one is above the law and that government must be administered according to the law, Magna Carta will continue to have a role to play.”
So should we care? You bet!