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What is the significance of the Magna Carta?

I recently read an article in the American Bar Association Journal online concerning a speech that United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts gave recently about the significance of the Magna Carta.

As you may recall, many of the Barons in England were disgruntled with the King John I. What they really wanted to do was to replace King John but they didn’t have a favorable replacement. As an alternative, King John met them at Runnymede on the bank of the River Thames, which is not far from Windsor. The purpose was to limit the arbitrary powers of the King so that the things that he imposed on the people were backed by the “law of the land”.

The Charter of Liberties had been sealed by Henry I in 1100, which had specific limitations on King Henry 1. On 15 June 1215, King John placed his seal on the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta is also known as the Magna Carta

Libertatum and The Great Charter of the Liberties of England. It is written in Latin. Though the Charter was not numbered, clause 61 gave the Barons the right to overrule the King if he defied the Charter through the unanimous consent of twenty-five Barons. Such action would allow the Barons to seize the King’s castles and possessions if necessary through a medieval legal practice that was known as distraint. King John was unhappy about that clause and renounced it as soon as the Baron’s left. The Pope, Innocent II was a supporter of King John at the time (he had previously excommunicated John in 1209) and renounced the Magna Carta.

The Barons realized that King John would never accept the Magna Carta and began to look for a new King. A civil war occurred called the First Barons War. The Crown was offered to Prince Louis of France, who also prolonged the War along with the rebel Barons. King John died in 1216, paving the way for the Magna Carta’s implementation into English law and John’s, minor son, Henry III was crowned as King. King Henry III had further influence over the Magna Carta after he obtained the age of majority though he reduced the number of clauses. The influence of the Magna Carta was further expanded under King Edward I in 1297 and was Constitutionally more important. Even though one half of the Magna Carta had been repealed by the mid 1800’s, it was responsible for representative government, due process and sentences to fit the severity of crimes among many other things. Many of these ideals were carried into the Colonies and became a part of the framework of the Unites States Constitution.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered speech about the Magna Carta and its influence on American law was a part of the 800th anniversary commemoration of it’s signing as it approaches next year. At the outset he told of a tour guide at Runnymede after the tour guide’s main presentation had ended. The tour guide asked the group if they had questions. One gentleman raised his hand and asked the guide when the Magna Carta was signed. The guide replied 1215, to which the gentleman in the group turned to his wife and said, “See, I told you we shouldn’t have stopped for lunch. We just missed it.” Chief Justice Roberts drew great laughs for that and followed by saying, “ If you don’t like that, you try coming up with a Magna Carta joke”.

Roberts went on to say, "We live in an era in which sharp partisan divides within our political branches have shaken public faith in government across the board." Roberts went on to point out that an independent judiciary can help remedy partisan disputes by exercising independent and sound decisions.

Today, three parts of the Magna Carta (as sent forth under Edward I) exist in English law; those being (1) Clause 1 and the freedom of the English Church; Clause 9 and the “ancient liberties” of the City of London and Clause 29 and the right to due process.

As this article has only touched on the history and content of the Magna Carta I would urge you to read further on this great document.

This article is informative only and not meant to be all inclusive. Additionally this article does not serve as legal advice to the reader and does not constitute an attorney- client relationship. The reader should seek counsel from their attorney should any questions exist.

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