Justice Matters: Magna Carta Celebrates 800 Years of the Rule of Law

The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.

This month, we celebrate the 800th anniversary of a document that many believe inspired the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It was in June 1215 that Magna Carta first pronounced that no one – no matter how powerful – is above the law.

Although I briefly learned about Magna Carta in high school, it wasn’t until this past fall that I realized the true significance of this Great Charter, when I had the opportunity to view one of the four remaining copies of Magna Carta, in person, during a rare exhibit at the Library of Congress.

Magna Carta was borne from a long feud between King John and land barons in England. The barons had been quite upset with the king as he arbitrarily and excessively taxed the barons’ property to pay for his losing military battles with France. Designed as a contractual peace treaty, the land barons ultimately persuaded King John to enter into the agreement, which granted many personal liberties to the barons and other privileged citizens. King John, however, intended for this document to be repudiated in short order and, in fact, he went to the Pope, pleading he was under duress and coercion when he placed his seal on it. The Pope declared Magna Carta was “null and void of all validity forever.”

Despite their actions, however, history has told a different story. Over time, Magna Carta has become the most enduring symbol of “the rule of law” and continues to provide relevance to our lives today.

In addition to incorporating the overarching rule of law, our founding fathers embedded other legal principles from Magna Carta in the new nation they were developing. They barred taxation without representation. They prohibited government from enacting cruel and unusual punishment, from imposing excessive bail or fines, and from taking private property for public use without just compensation. They ensured the freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and freedom from unlawful search or seizure. They guaranteed the right to trial by a jury of your peers and a speedy trial. They assured due process of law and equal protection under the law. They also, I might add, required that judges be trained and certified, fair and impartial. Magna Carta’s influence also can be seen throughout our Missouri constitution and laws, too, as well as those of many states.

American judges also quote Magna Carta in judgments and opinions. The United States Supreme Court first referenced it in an 1819 opinion and, today, Supreme Court references to Magna Carta exceed 100. Recently, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “our American experiment has not reached a third of the age of Magna Carta, but we have given Magna Carta’s core concepts concrete meaning…in our constitutional framework.”

In one famous case in which Magna Carta was used for its proposition that no one is above the law, a federal district court denied the delay of Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment suit against Bill Clinton, writing that “our form of government … asserts as did the English in Magna Carta and the Petition of Right that ‘even the sovereign is subject to God and the law.’”

Although struck down so soon in its own day, Magna Carta has truly shaped the course of human history in our country and other democracies around the world. Its continuing impact on justice never could had been imagined when it was sealed 800 years ago as a declaration that no one, not even a king, is above the law. In retrospect, perhaps the injustice that King John committed against the land barons illustrates how, sometimes, we first must suffer injustice before we can appreciate justice.


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