The Library of Congress is commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta with an exhibition – Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor, a symposium, and a series of talks starting this year. From November 6 through January 19, 2015, the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215 will be on display along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of 800 years of its influence on the history of political liberty. This post is adapted from an article in the Gazette, the Library’s internal publication, originally written by Mark Hartsell.
We were fortunate to have a sitting chief justice of the United States, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and a recently-retired lord chief justice of England and Wales, The Right Honourable The Lord Judge, in town during the Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor opening celebrations. The day before the exhibition opened, we were honored to bring the judicial leaders together in a relaxed conversation, with the Law Librarian David S. Mao as moderator, about the legal legacy of Magna Carta. [Note: Lord Judge’s given surname is “Judge.”]
The Law Librarian posed five questions to the chief justices that explored the influence of Magna Carta down through the centuries, the charter’s meaning in modern law and its importance as a symbol for the future.
Roberts called the historic charter a “critical symbol” of fundamental rights and the rule of law.
“I like to think of it as a cornerstone,” Roberts told an audience in the Jefferson Building’s Members Room. “We celebrate the 800th birthday as we would celebrate the laying of a cornerstone of a building. What we’ve built on that cornerstone is something we call the rule of law.”
The conversation touched on the historical connection between Magna Carta and the Library. The centerpiece of “Muse and Mentor” is the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of only four remaining original copies of the document to which King John affixed his seal at Runnymede in 1215.
“The British did not give it over lightly, and I think they did so in a very calculated way,” Roberts said. “They wanted to remind us that this is what they were fighting for and convey the strong message that ‘you should be, too.’ ”
In the Middle Ages, he said, kings believed they ruled by divine right and were accountable only to God. With Magna Carta, that began to change.
“Suddenly,” Judge said, “the king is answerable on earth, not just in heaven. … That, I think, leads us to this really important point, which is easy in a democracy to overlook but which in any dictatorship would be no trouble at all: No king is above the law, no president is above the law, no executive is above the law. Everyone is answerable for his actions in court.”
Magna Carta served as one of the earliest statements of limited government and of individual rights, influencing the legal systems of many democratic nations.
But 800 years after its creation, Mao asked, what is the argumentative force, if any, of citing Magna Carta in a brief to the court or in a judicial decision?
“If you’re citing Magna Carta in a brief before the Supreme Court of the United States or in an argument, you’re in pretty bad shape,” Roberts joked. “We like our authorities a little more current and a little more directly on point.”
But, Judge said, “It remains a useful reminder to all of us, including the judges, that there are some very basic principles that govern our judicial lives that we should be alert to.”
Roberts recalled arguing before the Supreme Court as a lawyer and connected that experience to the historical influence of Magna Carta.
All you had to do, he said, was convince five other lawyers that you are correct and the United States government, the most powerful force on Earth, would recede from its position.
“That’s what we mean by rule of law,” he said. “What happens in the Supreme Court building across the street is a restraint of power and might – exactly what the barons were doing at Runnymede when they coerced the king into granting the charter.”
Update: Event video added below.