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President's Column
President's Column
Judge Robert B. Rader
Wake County Bar Association 

 


800 YEARS OF MAGNA CARTA:

A MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT

BY JUDGE ROBERT B. RADER, PRESIDENT, WAKE COUNTY BAR


EACH YEAR IN MAY we celebrate the rule of law and our legal system through observance of Law Day. The idea of Law Day originated in 1957 when then ABA President Charles Rhyne, a Washington, D.C. attorney, envisioned a special day set aside for recognition and dedication to the principles of government under law. In 1961 Congress designated May 1 as the official day each year for celebrating Law Day. This year the focus of Law Day is particularly significant since we also celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

Since its creation in 1215, few documents have had a more profound effect on our constitutional form of government and the rule of law in our country than the Magna Carta or "the Great Charter.” To commemorate the impact of this great document on our American legal system, the American Bar Association will hold a special ceremony on June 15, 2015, at the meadows of Runnymede near Windsor, England. On this historic occasion, we would be remiss if we, as lawyers, did not take a moment to reflect on the importance of this great document. While an exhaustive discussion of the history and impact of the Magna Carta is far beyond the scope of this limited message, a brief summary is worthwhile.

The Magna Carta originated in 1215 when England was on the brink of civil war as a result of extensive taxes levied by King John to fund an unsuccessful war with France. Even prior to his defeat, King John was unpopular with many of the aristocratic barons who owed money to the crown. As distrust and resistance to the rule of the King grew, the barons became more organized and demanded that the King adopt the Charter of Liberties declared by King Henry I in the previous century. The Charter of Liberties was perceived as a way to provide protection to the barons. With King John unwilling to do so, both sides sought help from Pope Innocent III in resolving the conflict.  
Ultimately, the barons rejected a proposal by the King to allow the Pope to serve as supreme arbiter of the issues. As a result, King John asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langston, to organize peace talks with the barons.

On June 10, 1215, King John met with rebel leaders on the meadows of Runnymede where they presented
 him with their demands in the form of a document known as the Articles of the Barons. With Archbishop Langston serving in the role of mediator, the two sides ultimately reached agreement by June 15 and the Great Charter was formally adopted. Interestingly, the agreement adopted at Runnymede would not be known as the Magna Carta until several years later. The agreement adopted at Runnymede was fewer than 4,000 words handwritten in Latin on a piece of sheepskin parchment approximately 18 inches square. No one, including King John, signed the original agreement; however, the King affixed his seal to 40 copies that were later produced by his royal chancery and distributed throughout England.

The original document was one continuous text; however, in 1759 English jurist William Blackstone divided the Magna Carta into 63 chapters or clauses, which remains the accepted numbering system for the document today. Of the many provisions within the Magna Carta, one commonly referred to as Clause 61, provided for the creation of a council of 25 barons to ensure the King’s compliance with the agreement. If the King violated the terms of the agreement, within 40 days of being notified the council could seize the King’s castle and lands until such time as the violation was rectified. As conflict continued between the King and the nobles, King John appealed to Pope Innocent III for relief from the charter. Less than ten weeks after creation of the historic document, the Magna Carta was annulled by Pope Innocent III declaring it to be "not only shameful and demeaning but also illegal and unjust.” Subsequently, violence broke out between the two sides which led to the First Barons’ War.

Only months after adoption of the Magna Carta, King John died and his nine-year-old son Henry III ascended to the throne. In 1216, in order to avert war between the new King’s supporters and those of Prince Louis, King Henry III adopted a shortened version of the original Magna Carta excluding the infamous Clause 61. King Henry received the approval and seal of the papal legate to England at the time thus assuring its survival. Following the end of the First Barons’ War in 1217, a slightly expanded version of the 1216 charter was again adopted which ultimately gave rise to a second charter known as the Charter of the Forest which addressed issues related to the management and boundaries of the royal forests. The 1217 charter quickly became known as the Magna Carta to distinguish it from the shorter Charter of the Forest.

The Magna Carta continued to be recognized by subsequent monarchs as an integral part of English government. I
n 1225 King Henry III again reaffirmed his support of the document by reissuing the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. In 1297, King Edward I reissued the 1225 version of the Magna Carta in exchange for a new tax. This version is of particular significance because it still remains in part in the English statutes. The Magna Carta has been reconfirmed countless times by Parliament and monarchs throughout the years. While the Magna Carta became less significant in political life by the 15th century, it began to receive considerable attention by the 17th century when many English leaders used the Magna Carta as a political tool to challenge the powers of the monarchy.

As English colonists began to settle in America and establish charters, they commonly sought to incorporate passages and themes from the Magna Carta. Most colonists believed that certain rights were prescribed to them already by the Magna Carta and those rights must be preserved by any new constitution. The concept that government or the sovereign must recognize and respect the rights of the individual was essential to any successful form of government. The Magna Carta was frequently cited and referenced by William Penn, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Today the Magna Carta remains one of the most iconic documents in legal history. Although it was never intended to be a constitution or framework for government, the Magna Carta remains historically significant in that it forms the basis for the rule of law and the concept that no person, regardless of their title or position in life, is above the law. This concept is fundamental to our democratic form of government. The Magna Carta also forms the basis for many of our other most cherished rights afforded to individuals today including: due process, trial by jury, right to travel and the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus. The principle of due process, which lies at the heart of our American legal system, derives directly from the Magna Carta. While throughout history some have argued that the Magna Carta did not truly grant protection of personal liberties for all people since it only referred to the rights of the 
barons and the nobility against the crown, it is without doubt that the Magna Carta had a profound impact on the development and formation of our U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.


As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and reflect on the significance of this great document on our legal system and constitutional form of government, let us renew our commitment to the rule of law and the concepts of justice not only in Wake County but throughout our great nation and the world. WBF


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