The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, is a charter drawn by English noblemen guaranteeing certain English rights and defining English civil and political liberties. It was signed by seal of King John of England on June 15, 1215 in an attempt to guarantee the continuing loyalty of the nobility. While Pope Innocent III nullified the arrangement 10 months later, the document was reissued with alterations in 1216, 1217 and 1225. In 1297, Edward I entered the Magna Carta into the statues of this realm, which makes it the first entry on the statute books. While the Magna Carta was initially meant to protect only the rights of noblemen, it was finally extended to commoners and served as the basis for English Common Law.
The Magna Carta included 63 exemptions which served to cover the main problems affecting England during the reign of King John including inheritance; debts and the payment after death; the administration of justice; the levying of taxes; woods, riverbanks and river weirs; and freedom of commerce and travel amongst others. While the Magna Carta wasn’t originally numbered or divided into separate clauses, a numbering system was supplied by Sir William Blackstone, in 1759 in a published edition of the 1215 version of the Magna Carta.
The statute that had remained dormant for several years was revived by Sir Edward Coke in the seventeenth century. Coke served as attorney general for Queen Elizabeth I, chief justice of the King’s Bench for King James I, and as both attorney general and speaker of the House of Commons. Coke touted the Magna Carta as authority for challenging the Stuart kings’ claims of royal prerogative and he interpreted the Magna Carta as an affirmation of the principles of human liberties and as a statement of English rights held since antiquity. The importance that Sir Edward Coke attributed to the Magna Carta was reflected in the legislation of the colonies and his interpretation led to the claim of the inviolability of a person’s right to due process of law.
Englishmen who came to the American colonies believed they were entitled to the rights of Englishmen embodied in the Magna Carta and as defined in the English Common Law, and it was upon this frame that the colonists started to build the laws of the land and assert their liberty in the English Crown.
When framing their State Constitutions, nearly all the original colonies comprised a statement of their basic rights and liberties of man. While the Constitution of 1789 embodied various declarations of the basic rights of men, it did not include a formal Bill of Rights, such as that included in the State Constitutions. Intense debate over the need for a declarative statement outlining the rights of citizens ensued. As a result, Articles three through twelve, known as the Bill of Rights, became the first ten amendments to the Constitution of America.
The Bill of Rights, passed in 1789, and put in effect in 1791, secures the crucial rights and liberties of the individual citizen and restricts the government’s power in judicial proceedings. A number of these rights and liberties, in addition to the theory of representative government, the idea of a supreme law, and the notion of judicial review descend from an eighteenth-century understanding of the Magna Carta.
Freedom of Religion:
The English concept of freedom of the church served as the foundation for our First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Similarly, Clause 1 of the Magna Carta provides”That the English Church shall be free and shall have her whole rights and her liberties inviolable…” Clauses 62 and 63, which were omitted from the subsequent reissues of the Magna Carta, also reaffirm the freedom of the Church.
The idea of due process was expanded to include the right to bear arms (Second Amendment) and to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment).
Due process, derived from Clause 39 of the Magna Carta, deals with the administration of justice and the rights of individuals.
Clause 39 guarantees that the administration of justice shall be according to”the laws of this land.” While the idea of”law of the land” isn’t defined in the Magna Carta, it has over time come to mean the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers, the right to confront one’s accusers, and the right to appeal.
The term”due process of law” first substituted the stage”the law of the land” in 1354 in a statute restating the Magna Carta’s procedural claims. It’s this guarantee that is embodied in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution also includes a similar provision. That guide, known as the Suspension Clause, provides that”the privilege of the writ habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.” It should also be noted that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1868, also contains a due process clause.
The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to”all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and prohibit states from denying any individual”life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or denying”any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The provisions of the Fifth Amendment were introduced as a check upon the national government while those enunciated in the Fourteenth Amendment were directed towards the individual states in the Union. Taken together, but both amendments ensure that the individual’s right to life, liberty and property remain inviolate vis a vis both the state and national government.
The concept of making sure that the individual’s right to life, liberty and property remained inviolate vis a vis government is further exemplified in the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution wherein it is stipulated that”the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Clearly, the framers of the Constitution meant that the rights that they held prior to the framing of the Constitution, such as those claimed from the Magna Carta, were never lost nor limited by the Constitution.
As previously noted, Clause 39 of the Magna Carta contains the assurance that”no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned… except by the lawful judgment of his peers.” The intent at the time was to induce the king to relinquish judicial authority to peers of the person on trial. Thus, while the Magna Carta didn’t contemplate the jury system that we have in the United States, it did serve as its inspiration. The colonists viewed the right to a jury trial because of an important liberty and a basic safeguard of freedom from arbitrary government. Hence the notion espoused in Clause 39 that”no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned… except by the lawful judgment of his peers” was integrated in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Thus, similar to Clause 39, the Sixth Amendment guarantees a trial by a jury comprised of fellow citizens.
Clause 40 of the Magna Carta states that”to no-one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.” This idea of swift justice can be reflected in the Sixth Amendment in the guarantee that”the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”
While the Sixth Amendment secured a right to a jury trial in criminal cases, it did not apply to civil cases. The Seventh Amendment, however, was created to ensure a jury trial in civil cases. The Seventh Amendment mandates that”in suits at common law where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the principles of the common law.”
The rights sought by the barons in 1215, as defined in the Magna Carta, not only found their way to the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but these essential rights can also be found in the jury instructions issued by Judge to jury in america. That is, these rights can be seen in the terms presumption of innocence and burden of proof.
No Trial without credible witnesses
Clause 38 of the Magna Carta, afterwards re-numbered 29, provides that”No bailiff, for the future, shall put any man to his law, upon his own simple affirmation, without credible witnesses created for the purpose.” Clause 38’s requirement that no man be put to trial without witnesses found its way into the Sixth Amendment in the guarantee that”the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” In our judicial system, however, it is for the jury to determine the credibility of a witness.
During the reign of King John, there existed a concern regarding the severity of the punishment to be rendered. Thus Clause 20 of the Magna Carta was written to make sure that”A free-man shall not be fined for a small offence, but only according to the degree of the offence; and for a excellent delinquency, according to the magnitude of the delinquency, saving his contentment… and none of the aforesaid fines shall be assessed, but by the oath of honest men of the vicinage.” To ensure that punishments were not overly excessive, Clause 20 mandated that the punishment be in line with the gravity of the offense. This same principle is expressed in our Eighth Amendment from the guarantee that”Excessive bail shall not be required nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The Theory of Representative Government:
The longest clause of the Magna Carta, Clause 61, called the security clause, was the most critical clause affecting King John in 1215. Clause 61 provided that a committee of 25 barons could meet anytime and overrule the will of the King, by force if necessary, if he defied the terms of the Charter, and they could seize his possessions and castles. As this was the first time that such a practice was forced upon a ruling monarch, Clause 61 was a severe challenge to King John’s authority. Not surprisingly, Clause 61 was omitted from all later reissues of the Magna Carta.
Clause 61 provides in part that”… since we have given all these things… we being desirous that these things should have entire and unshaken stability for ever, give and grant to them the security underwritten; namely the Barons may select twenty-five Barons of the kingdom, whom they please, who shall with their whole power, observe, keep, and cause to be observed, the peace and liberties which we have given to them, and have confirmed by this our present charter… And if we will not have redresses… the twenty-five Barons… shall distress… us… from the taking of our castles, lands, and possessions…”
Throughout the time of the Tudors, the Magna Carta served as a foundation for establishing the first Parliament to assist in enforcing the rights claimed by law. Afterwards, in Elizabethan times, the Magna Carta was utilized to establish the antiquity of Parliament.
The primary importance of Clause 61 is that it laid the framework for the simple form of government in both England and in the USA. In this regard, the twenty-five baron committee was representative of what would later become Parliament and a balance to the King’s power. In turn, the English governmental system of Monarch, Commons, and Lords provided the legal foundation for our system of two houses of Congress and the Presidency. The framers of the Constitution were influenced by the constitutional relationship between the Monarch, Commons and Lords in the British governmental system and it’s from this system that the legal basis for both houses of Congress and the Presidency, as well as the idea of checks and balances, was created. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government, along with the system of checks and balances, are based in the first few articles of this Constitution.
For the framers of the Constitution, the checks and balances that functioned between the three branches of government were a means to protect against any single branch from overreaching and exceeding its powers. Therefore, the Constitution and the Magna Carta were ready with the same intent in mind. Both files limit government by requiring entry to the law and by requiring recognition of the rights of taxpayers.
The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” Therefore, the Tenth Amendment makes it clear that our national government possesses only those powers granted to it by the Constitution. The states, however, have all powers which the Constitution neither delegates to our national government nor prohibits the states from working; said otherwise, all powers not expressly delegated to the federal government nor denied to the states, remain with the states or the public.
Idea of a Supreme Law
The Magna Carta has also been credited with providing the foundation for the idea of a higher law. In this regard, it’s considered a superior law such that even kings must be subject to the law, and any attempt to invalidate it need not be respected. The concept that the Magna Carta provided the basis for the idea of a higher law is embedded in Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the United States Constitution. Thus the Supremacy Clause mandates that the Constitution together with all treaties and all national laws made in pursuance of this Constitution represents the”supreme law of the land” in the United States. The Supremacy Clause further mandates that all judges in most countries are bound by this”supreme law of the land,” and that the state courts must refuse to uphold any state law that’s contrary to the”supreme law of the land.” This concept of a supreme law, embedded in the supremacy clause, is enforced by the Supreme Court.
Clauses 39 and 40, discussed above, also act as a foundation for the idea of judicial review. It’s through judicial review that our courts interpret the meaning and intent of legislation.