On the eve of the 800-year anniversary of the symbol of the rule of law, this is a moment in our history to pause and reflect upon the meaning of the rule of law and its origins, and to recognize that today it is even more relevant than ever.
On June 15, 1215, the basic principle that no one — not even the king — was above the law was first recognized and written down. This made Magna Carta the very basis of the rule of law. With this international tribute to liberty and freedom under the law, to the relationship between the government and the governed, we are presented with an opportunity to educate others and transmit these traditions.
Now, more than ever, after eight centuries, the principle that no man is above the law must be emphasized and reinforced in the face of international leaders and dictators who disrespect the rule of law, to ensure that everyone receives the privilege of living with liberties and freedoms protected under the law.
The principle reminds us that we are all equal under the law, and that even the most powerful must abide by the scrutiny of the law. The impeachment of past presidents like Richard Nixon, is a testament that even the strongest person in the world is not above the law.
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America’s legal traditions are rooted in Magna Carta. As the single most important legal document in history, it is England’s greatest export to us.
In the 18th century, writing the founding documents, the settlers viewed Magna Carta as “fundamental law” and secured the extension of the rule of law to America. The protections of due process, right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury, right to counsel, and that justice cannot be bought or delayed, all find their origin in Magna Carta.
To this day, these concepts are firmly embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We continue to uphold and revere these enduring principles. The Supreme Court has cited Magna Carta in over 170 opinions. Justice Joseph Story first cited Magna Carta in an 1819 opinion when he wrote that Magna Carta represented “the good sense of mankind.”
As fundamental law, Magna Carta also stands as the symbol of basic human rights. When Eleanor Roosevelt was head of the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations, she was instrumental in formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she described as the “international Magna Carta for all men everywhere.”
These rights are so integral to our beliefs of basic human rights that we have come to expect them and refuse to allow anyone to live without their protection.
Today we have a duty to strengthen our resolve to uphold and continue to protect these principles and ensure that the rule of law extends to everyone around the world. This great tradition of the rule of law inspires us to renew our dedication to defend liberty and justice for all.
Stephen N. Zack is an attorney in Miami and former president of the American Bar Association. He is leading a delegation of the ABA at the celebrations in the United Kingdom this week in observance of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.