Magna Carta and American Law

During 2009, Americans had a chance to view the source document underpinning constitutional law here and in England: The Magna Carta. One of the four remaining original Magna Carta’s of 1215 – the Lincoln Cathedral Exemplar was displayed at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in New York City, in an exhibit entitled “Magna Carta-the Foundations of Freedom”.

What has Magna Carta meant for American law? It is the source of many of our most fundamental concepts of law. Indeed, the very concept of a written constitution stems from the Magna Carta. In over one hundred decisions, the United States Supreme Court has traced our dependence on the Magna Carta for our understanding of due process of law, trial by jury of one’s peers, the importance of a speedy and unbiased trial, and protection against excessive bail or fines or cruel and unusual punishment.

Magna Carta seems to grow more important with each passing year. Up to the time of our Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court found fewer than a dozen cases requiring analysis of the Magna Carta. Between 1870 and 1900, over thirty cases, mostly interpretations of the newly extended rights under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, involved discussions of the Magna Carta. Since 1940, however, over sixty cases have produced comments and commentary on the Magna Carta’s role in American law.

When the barons gathered at Runnymede in 1215 they could not have known that the document they had forged to control an avaricious and unpopular king would have an increasing role nearly eight centuries later in a land not even discovered.

Clearly, King John did not intend such a result. It is clear that he intended to annul this piece of “mere foolishness!” at the first opportunity. That opportunity, however, never came. King John died the following year during a campaign in the North against recalcitrant barons. Putting the young King Henry III on the throne, and keeping him there, required his agreement to the Magna Carta’s terms. The reaffirmation of 1225 was especially important in setting the text and emphasizing the permanence of the Great Charter. For the first hundred years of its life, the Magna Carta was the major bulwark protecting barons, prelates and commoners from the power of the King and his officers.

The development of two great independent institutions threw the Magna Carta into the shadows for the following three hundred years. An organized body of common law rapidly developed, first systematically described by Bracton’s “De Legubis et Consuetudinibus Angliae” (On the Laws and Customs of England), ca 1250, trans. By Samuel E. Thorne, 4 vols., 1968, 1977. Second, the system of Parliament provided an ever-stronger defense against arbitrary acts by the King.

The Magna Carta was only revived as a basic source of English law, and liberty, in the 1600’s during another battle between subjects and the King, one that would end with the execution of the reigning monarch. That timing was important for American law, because the promoters negotiating charters for the new American colonies fought to have the protections of the Magna Carta extended to the new land. Settlers were promised that the Magna Carta would follow them into the American wilderness. Pennsylvania’s 1682 Frame of Government included it. Penn could hardly deny to his settlers protections he had claimed under the Magna Carta in his own trial In England in 1670.

The Magna Carta gave intellectual underpinning to the American Revolution. Americans claimed the right to trial by jury and no taxation without representation because the Magna Carta gave them those rights. The Stamp Acts and other legislation had shifted jurisdiction for many offenses to the Admiralty courts, where there is no jury trial, correctly foreseeing that local juries would be loathe to convict their neighbors and enforce “foreign” taxes on our soil. The colonists in 1776 were more English than the English in protecting these rights.

After the American Revolution was won, the Magna Carta’s protections were built into the new constitutions written by the states, often in its very words some of these protections were incorporated into the Constitution forged in Philadelphia in 1797, but the lack of mention of many of them almost torpedoed the Constitution’s ratification. The Bill of Rights proposed in 1799 and adopted in 1791 fulfilled promises of the Constitution’s backers that the rights Americans had fought and died for would be preserved.

Although the Magna Carta figured briefly in one 1815 case, the first analysis of its impact in America came in the 1819 case of The Bank of Columbia v. Okely, 4 Wheat.(l 7 U.S.) 235, where a Maryland statute allowing summary process and attachment against debtors was upheld against attacks based on the U.S. Constitution’s Seventh Amendment jury trial guarantee and Maryland’s parallel: The 21st Article of the Declaration of Rights of the State of Maryland is in the words of the Magna Carta, “No freeman ought to be taken or imprisoned, etc. or deprived of his life, liberty, or property, but by the judgement of his peers, or by he law of the land.” In that decision, the court expressed an understanding of the Magna Carta which remains valid today: “As to the words from the Magna Carta, incorporated into the Constitution of Maryland, after volumes spoken and written with a view to their exposition, the good sense of mankind has at length settled down to this: that they were intended to secure the individual from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government, unrestrained by the established principals of private rights and disruptive justice.”

Note: These articles are an attempt to chronicle the Court’s application of “The good sense of mankind” to the interpretation of Magna Carta in America.