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Democracies’ guiding document

Virginia Bar Association marks 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta

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1297 version of the Magna Carta in London. Photo by Andrew Matthews/
PA Wire URN:20879325 (Press Association via AP Images)

Eight hundred years ago rebellious barons demanded their lives and property be protected against the whims of a bullying English king. They signed a treaty with King John in June 1215 that lasted barely two months, but the ideas it contained have stood the test of time.

The Magna Carta, as the treaty came to be called, is a guiding document of democracies around the world. The Virginia Bar Association marked its 800th anniversary by gathering a stellar list of experts at the group’s annual meeting, which was held Jan. 22-24 in Williamsburg.

“The Magna Carta over the centuries has become both in England and America an iconic representation of what we call the rule of law, when no one is above the law, including the king,” says A.E. Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a constitutional scholar.

During the VBA session Howard hosted a discussion on the document’s impact. Participants scheduled to participate in the event included Judge Roger L. Gregory, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; Risa L. Goluboff, law professor at the University of Virginia; and Sir Robert Worcester, emeritus chancellor of the University of Kent in England and chairman of the Magna Carta 2015 800th Anniversary Commemoration Commission.

The Magna Carta advanced some fundamental concepts — the idea of individual rights, restrictions on government and due process of law. It also helped create “the idea of a constitution itself. Magna Carta is not a constitution in the modern sense, but it became kind of a super statute,” Howard says. That concept of a supreme law of the land exists today in American constitutional law, he says. Plus, the notion of equal justice. “Magna Carta declared that justice was not to be sold or delayed or denied,” Howard says. “The notion of access to justice is part of its legacy.”

How did it survive? Howard says that for long periods of time not much was made of the Magna Carta. Its concepts surfaced again in the 17th century in the English Bill of Rights, and then again in the 18th century in the American Revolution “when Americans … invoked the Magna Carta as part of their birthright.”

Businesses also depend on the protections of constitutional law, says David Landin of Hunton & Williams in Richmond, who is chairman of the VBA committee that organized the event. Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state depends on fair and predictable rules of commerce, he says. The Magna Carta is the root of a legal system that is supposed to preserve those rules. “These instruments of the law are essential,” he says.

Virginia is a good place to mark this document’s impact in the U.S., Howard says. The Virginia Company charter of 1606, the Virginia Declaration of Rights and James Madison’s work on the U.S. Constitution reflect it, Howard says. “So if you follow the trail of Magna Carta through important founding documents, you’ll find that trail comes through

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