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October 31, 2015

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Magna Carta at 800 Years

The Section of State and Local Government Law was well represented at the American Bar Association’s London Sessions marking the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta by King John on June 15, 1215, “across the reeds at Runnymede.”

ABA London Sessions

The London Sessions began with an inspiring afternoon opening session at the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, across from Westminster Abbey. The spacious auditorium in Central Hall hosted the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 and numerous speakers throughout the 20th century from Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. Our ABA President, William Hubbard, welcomed the attendees and his colleagues, the chairs of the Bar Council and the Law Society of England and Wales, who welcomed the Association members attending. A choir from the various Inns of Court, Legal Harmony, presented beautiful and rousing performances of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “I Was Glad,” and “Jerusalem.” The opening address was given by the President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, the Rt. Hon. Lord Neuberger, who outlined the history of Magna Carta as the foundation of the concept of rule of law as one of the twin pillars of free societies: democratic government, which allows for majority rule, and the rule of law, which protects the individual’s rights against overreaching by the majority and the state. He also pointed out that while the United Kingdom’s government may be more “democratic,” the United States’ system may more effectively emphasize the rule of law, through the supremacy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The opening session was followed by an Evensong service at Temple Church, the church of Inner and Middle Temple, two of England’s four Inns of Court. The Knights Templars, who established the Temple, protected King John there from the barons (to ensure that he repaid his debt to them, it is said), so the location was a fitting one for this commemoration weekend. The service set a serene and reflective tone to the opening afternoon of the session, highlighted by the organ music and the singing of the Temple Church Choir in the candlelight as the early summer sun began to set on the City of London. After the service, we were hosted to a reception in the garden of Middle Temple.

The next two days were filled with outstanding panels and breakfast and lunchtime speakers, including our Section’s own panel program, described below. We heard a panel called “What If?” exploring the counterfactual historical implications if Magna Carta had never happened, and a speech from Cherie Blair, Q.C., exploring the importance of the rule of law in developing nations and fostering international commercial activity. Beatrice Mtetwa, a British barrister practicing human rights law in Zimbabwe, stunned and inspired the Saturday morning breakfast session as she described putting her physical safety and life on the line by simply representing clients in an authoritarian society in which the rule of law is routinely not respected, and the essential importance of getting up every day to continue the practice of law even in the most trying of circumstances. A distinguished panel explored the role that international corporations can play in advancing the rule of law in the countries where they invest and trade. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne spoke at a lunch session about her work in Iraq and other war torn countries to bring war criminals to justice. She said that it may be time to reassess what we mean by democracy and suggested it should encompass a person’s freedom to move, speak, earn a living wage, and choose one’s leaders. The Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Chief Justice Jean Toal, moderated a panel of international jurists from Britain, Brazil, and Nigeria on judicial independence and the rule of law.

A Magna Carta for True Local Government

The Section’s program at the ABA London Sessions on June 12 at the Grosvenor Hotel in London was outstanding! “A Magna Carta for True Local Government” was well-received, well-attended, and presented by a diverse blend of speakers who hailed from Sri Lanka, London, Lincolnshire, and Hawaii, moderated by a Mississippian. The ABA featured an “action shot” photo of our panelists in the next day’s report on the London Sessions, with former City of London Planner Peter Rees speaking to the audience of over 100. What follows is just a snapshot that captures the essence of our program.

Following introductions by Past-Chair of the Fellows Myles Link and by Ben Griffith as moderator, Local Government Association (UK) Vice-Chair Marianne Overton led off the panel with a PowerPoint-enhanced discussion of the United Kingdom’s recent parliamentary action that purports to devolve more substantive authority to local government, but highlighted many instances in which words needed more demonstrative action from London. She showed quite convincingly that much more remains to be done. City University Professor Anton Cooray, formerly on the faculty at Hong Kong University, provided an engaging analysis of the concept of “Presidentialism” at the local government level, drawing on his many years of experience in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong (where he chaired the powerful town and country planning board while chairing the law department at City University of Hong Kong), and the United Kingdom. Professor Peter Rees, former City of London Chief Planner, now on the faculty at The Bartlett, gave a captivating account of the tensions between local and centralized governance in a presentation appropriately entitled “Are the Barons Revolting?” Our Section’s own Professor David Callies, a past Section Chair and a prolific writer in his field of expertise, provided an eloquent summary of the presentations, demonstrating the quick wit and skills that have been honed to a razor edge over his four-plus decades of lecturing and public speaking before literally hundreds of audiences. A robust question-and-answer session capped off the 90 minute panel program, and our speakers all participated in a most substantive way, responding to excellent questions that showed how engaged the audience really was.

We hosted a dinner for all of our panelists the evening of June 12 at The Delaunay located in London’s West End, providing a relaxed atmosphere in which Section members Andy Gowder, Larry Bechler, David Callies, and Ben Griffith along with their spouses let our diverse group of speakers know how much we appreciated their contributions to what all considered a dynamic and successful program.

Special thanks and a sincere expression of heartfelt gratitude go to Rob Thomas for putting together and submitting the Section of State and Local Government Law’s program proposal almost a year ago. Ours was one of only 16 selected out of the total of 54 proposals submitted to the ABA London Sessions Planning Committee. Rob, our Hawaiian brother, you made all of us look good!

The closing plenary session was moderated by Professor A.E. Howard of the University of Virginia, who led a distinguished panel through a session with the theme: “Where Do We Go From Here?” tracing the spread of the principles of Magna Carta from the U.S. Constitution to the constitutions of France and postwar Japan and Germany, post-apartheid South Africa, and the United Nations.

At Runnymede

Finally, early Monday morning, June 15, our group boarded buses for Runnymede and attended a once-in-a-lifetime event on the site of the sealing of Magna Carta, 800 years ago. Though the weather was cloudy and threatened rain early, right on cue the clouds parted and the sun shone on Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Prince William, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Prime Minister David Cameron as they arrived to attend the ceremony. ABA members were seated in front of the stage to get a full view of the proceedings.

It was impressive to be among the 1,000 American lawyers and their guests on the shores of the Thames River less than an hour from the heart of London, as all of those present had the unique opportunity to see and hear Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Prime Minister David Cameron, along with an appearance by Prince William, whose engaging hands-on approach to working the crowd was phenomenal. After the ceremony on the main stage was completed, President Hubbard, accompanied by Princess Anne and a British military honor guard, proceeded up the hill to rededicate the ABA Memorial to Magna Carta. At the Magna Carta memorial site, Princess Anne gave a commemorative speech. This was the same Magna Carta memorial originally given by the ABA in 1957, now rededicated in a stirring ceremony in which ABA President William Hubbard, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and a host of other dignitaries from our side of the pond participated. The speech by our new Attorney General was especially noteworthy for its depth and candor, and as usual our ABA President was the soul of courtesy and graciousness. We could not have asked for better representation. They did us proud. As we ate our box lunches on the grass, following the morning’s excitement, an honorary flyover of military jets capped off a most memorable day. It was an experience none of us will forget.