By Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Remarks celebrating the Magna Carta at the Runnymeade Memorial

July 15, 2000

Remarks celebrating the Magna Carta at the Runnymeade Memorial
Type: Speech
Location: The Runnymeade Memorial

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Sandra Day O'Connor [automatically transcribed, may contain inaccuracies]
Thank you President, Bill Paul, and the Lord Chief Justice Harry volts my friend from even before my days on the Supreme Court, and Lord justice Norse, it's good to see you again. And to see all of the members and brands of the American Bar Association, who were able to come to this remarkable place today.

I don't know about you. But when I walked today, across this Meadow to this historic spot, I was deeply moved. This spot resonates with historical significance to everyone here today. And every citizen of the United states and of the United Kingdom, and indeed far beyond the boundaries of those two nations. And it's a wonderful privilege to speak today in commemoration of one of the most momentous occasions in legal history.

In many ways, the story of English liberties, and therefore the story of American liberties began on this very meadow, when King John affixed the Great Seal of the realm to the Magna Carta. In truth, the grievances of the barons who impelled King john to come here in June of that year, were rather mundane concerns the barons were generally unlettered and self interested man, who sought practical concessions from the king and return for their allegiance to the crown. The Magna Carta bottom is an intensely practical document, tailored to the problems of feudal times, spelling out one by one concrete remedies or actual abuses. But in addressing the specific grievances, the great charter used language that transcended the barons parochial concerns, invoke principles and tended to vindicate not just the rights of the barons, but of all Englishmen.

Most famously, as we've already been reminded, in chapter 39, it states that no free man shall be taken in prison, this seized, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land. The revolutionary idea embraced by this provision, is what we now call the rule of law. The principle that no person including the sovereign is above the law, and that all persons shall be secure from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government. As Winston Churchill stated, this reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression and a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta, and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it. And in this respect, Lord Chief Justice Parker said, the Magna Carta is the spiritual and legal ancestor of the concept of the rule of law.

Sandra Day O'Connor [automatically transcribed, may contain inaccuracies]
Since its signing, the charter has been a crucial influence on the cultivation and development of the rule of law. For instance, the charter was critical in the early 1600s, when Parliament created the petition of right, condemning taxation without Parliament's consent, imprisonment without a showing of cause and the misuse of martial law. It was also the inspiration to the English Bill of Rights in 1689, securing the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, guaranteed free elections for parliament and protecting the right to free speech for members of parliament. The first American colonists brought with them to the new world the principles of the Magna Carta, and employed many of its guarantees in those early colonial charters.

It had an important influence on the thoughts of men, important in our country, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine. One consents, the spirit of the Magna Carta, in the timeless words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Likewise, the Magna Carta was a critical inspiration to the framing of the United States Constitution. The phrase law of the land used in chapter 39 of Magna Carta is basically indistinguishable from due process of law, a concept as central to any American constitutionalism as any. The echoes of that charter are palpable in the words of the fifth amendment to our Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” as the Magna Carta states that, “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, except by the lawful judgment of his peers.“

Our Sixth Amendment provides that the accused will enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. The very provision the court was considering In the case mentioned by the Lord Chief Justice this morning, the fundamental constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, to be fairly compensated for property taken by the government to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and to have access to the courts, as well as the ancient writ of habeas corpus, are all traceable, in some measure, to the document signed at this very site 785 years ago.

To this day, then, the Magna Carta remains a beacon for nations and for people committed to the ideals of democracy and the individual freedom. At no point in our lifetimes, have we experienced a period more critical to efforts to establish systems of government embracing these same ideals then during the past decade following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many nations that previously previously operated under the communist system have become now nascent democracies.

For the first time in history, there are now democratically elected governments in more than half the nations of the world. The American Bar Association through the Central and Eastern European law initiative, the acronym CEELI, has recognized the need to help these emerging democracies and their efforts to establish operative legal systems. Although that task has been challenging, the contributions made to this ABA effort by hundreds and hundreds of volunteer lawyers has been noteworthy and creative.

CEELI’s principal objective has been to provide technical legal assistance to the emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe in their attempts to establish systems embracing the rule of law. In 26 nation-states, American lawyers, judges, law professors have assisted in drafting constitutions, criminal and commercial codes, civil and human rights provisions and laws concerning private property. In countries that have operated under communism for 50-some years, that task has been daunting. societies have had to construct the concept of the rule of law from scratch.

But looking back to the principles of Magna Carta, there has to be guarantees that government cannot act against its citizens except on the basis of clearly stated laws. Properly adopted and publicly available provision has been made for free and fair elections of legislators and other officials. of all of legal protection must be built to allow citizens in every nation to live, to speak, to worship, to work and to travel as they see fit, without fear of reprisal from the state. And the legal rights of citizens must be enforceable in fair, competent and independent courts of law.

Creating such an infrastructure is a major task in nation-states when the citizens have little or no experience living under such a system. We as Americans, and citizens of the United Kingdom often take these foundational aspects of our legal system for granted as Lord justice Norse commented today, but they must not being overlooked, for the rule of law is utterly essential to the preservation free and democratic societies, there is nothing more important that we as lawyers can contribute, than working to ensure that the rule of law and the ideals that embrace it survive and flourish.

As Baroness Thatcher recently stated, “The rule of law as we understand it exists in only a part of the world. Our greatest wish is to extend it as far as possible, for it is the key to liberty.” There's no higher calling in the legal profession, no more fulfilling or satisfying a task than helping to establish and reinforce those principles for which Magna Carta stands. We can contribute in many ways, in our private practice, in government, as legislators, as judges, or as volunteers. Regarding most of our roles, the ideals embodied in the rule of law must be our calling.

We must constantly rededicate ourselves to saying that legal institutions protect the right of each individual to pursue life, liberty and happiness, and that no person is subjected to the exercise of arbitrary government power, and that all persons are equal under the law. Vindicating the rule of law is the central purpose, indeed the essence of the legal profession in any society that cherishes freedom and democracy. We can do no better in leaving a legacy for succeeding generations than to cultivate and nurture the rule of law where it now exists, and to plant the seeds for its flourishing in those places where it remains a new world, a foreign idea.

Some of you perhaps attended the Commission on Women's event last Sunday in New York at the American Bar Association meeting there. And if so, you saw and heard from one of the honorees, Debbie Rountree. And she told us all that we should be about something. Each one of us should be about something. And what that is is planting, nourishing and spreading the rule of law to achieve the best possible future for the new millennium.

Thank you.