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The journey of Magna Carta from an agreement between self-interested barons and a venal king to our current system of justice “has been aided in significant part by members of our profession, who recognized the enduring principles … and built upon that foundation,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., told the House of Delegates on Monday at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston.
Roberts’ address kicked off a year-long celebration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, which will culminate next June at the site of the sealing. “The ABA will literally build on the past by restoring and rededicating the monument it built in 1957 in Runnymede, England, when King John sealed the Great Charter,” he said.
Although “the barons took what they could get and the king kept what he could keep,” Roberts said, “when we talk about Magna Carta today, we’re not celebrating antiquated relics of a time long past; instead we are referring to a small collection of provisions that express kernels of transcendent significance.”
The chief justice gave a brief historical account of the enduring document, which contains the origins of concepts that we recognize today as due process, separation of powers, the elements of a fair trial and the right to counsel. It “contains only suggestions of what we now regard as fundamental freedoms,” he said.
Roberts spoke of three ways Magna Carta “has been evoked by and sustained free societies and remains relevant.” First, it “was invoked to foster government unity in times of crisis,” it “contributed to the rise of representative governments,” and a third effect “has a special resonance in this historic city of Boston: it kindled America’s Declaration of Independence,” he said.
Bringing the lessons of Magna Carta forward to today, Roberts urged the association’s members to rise above the partisan divide. “When lawyers fulfill their professional calling to its fullest extent, they rise above particular partisan debates and participate as problem solvers, whether through the ABA’s committees, through pro bono work, through public service or simply by helping the public understand the nature of the role the courts play in civic life, a role distinct from that of the political branches,” he said.
“We live in an era in which sharp political divides within our political branches have shaken public faith in government across the board,” said Roberts. “We on the bench can bolster public confidence by exercising independent judgment to reach sound decisions carefully explained to the best of our abilities. We rely on the bar’s skilled professionalism and hard work to help us carry out that function.”
Magna Carta’s “core principles remain relevant today and worth defending,” Roberts said. “When the ABA rededicates its monument to Magna Carta next June, it will symbolically renew its own commitment to that defense.”