Why should we care about a document signed 800 years ago? On June 15, 1215, an English document called the Magna Carta (or, Great Charter) was signed by King John. Under duress by the barons, King John gave up his absolute power over the government and justice system. The fundamental freedoms contained in the Magna Carta, including due process, habeas corpus, trial by jury, the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to travel, form the basis of the system of government in the United States and in other democracies across the world.
Leading up to the 800th anniversary of the signing of this document, the American Bar Association has partnered with members of the legal community in England to sponsor educational programs, publications and events about the Magna Carta. And Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom Under Law is the theme of this year’s Law Day.
Pursuant to a 1961 Congressional resolution (later codified), Law Day is celebrated every May 1 as a rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law and to cultivate respect for the rule of law foundational to the democratic way of life.
Law Day and More
It is interesting that Law Day is recognized on May 1, a day also known as May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a day to remember the struggles of workers in their fight for better wages and working conditions. May 1 was chosen to commemorate the May 4, 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago that erupted following a rally in support of workers striking to obtain an eight hour work day. A bomb was thrown, gunfire erupted, police and civilians were killed and wounded, and an internationally publicized (also widely criticized) trial followed.
The right to a trial by jury is one of the more enduring parts of the Magna Carta. It guarantees that “no free man shall be imprisoned or [dispossessed] . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Over the centuries, the concept of a trial by jury of one’s peers has evolved to the point that this right is guaranteed to all citizens. (See this informative history contained in IL HR206.)
This year, commemorating these historic events against the backdrop of the more current events going on in Baltimore, and that have taken place in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere should give us pause—and spur us to ask: What are we members of the legal profession doing to ensure that the fundamental freedoms contained in the iconic document we celebrate are a living reality today?
Melinda Bowen, president of the Utah Minority Bar Association, says,
While we certainly have made huge strides over the past eight centuries, current events show that we continue to face significant challenges related to political divisions, racial tensions and economic disparities. For many, these issues raise questions about whether elected officials truly represent their constituents, whether governmental officials operate within the law and whether our institutions provide equal access to essential resources.
This is where the service and professionalism lawyers are called to exhibit should come into play. As Chief Justice Roberts has stated,
When lawyers fulfill their professional calling to its fullest extent, they rise above particular partisan debates and participate as problem solvers, whether through the [bar association] 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.
Call To Action
This Law Day, let’s each commit to get more involved in both educating the public about the essential role the courts play in our society and also in striving to help the system work more effectively, efficiently and equitably. This may be taking on a pro bono matter, mentoring a younger lawyer, or simply treating your colleagues the way you’d like to be treated. If you need some other suggestions, check out pro bono opportunities on our website.