By James D. Gilson
Eight hundred years ago on June 15, 1215, King John and a group of rebellious barons met on a grassy meadow at Runnymede, England, to forge an accord to avert civil war. Although the agreement failed to prevent conflict, clauses in the document, eventually known as Magna Carta (the Great Charter), became the first significant step in a process of guaranteeing constitutional freedoms that continues today:
39. No free man will be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone.
American colonists embedded principles of Magna Carta into state laws and later into the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment provision that “no person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” descends from Magna Carta.
The rule of law today still insists that laws govern our society, as opposed to arbitrary decisions by individual government officials. For this to work, the process by which our laws are enacted by the legislature, administered by the executive branch, and interpreted by the courts, must be accessible and efficient and done in accordance with established law. Justice — the proper application of the rule of law — requires informed and ethical citizens and leaders who are committed to the bedrock principle that the law rules.
If “We the People” neglect our understanding and commitment to the rule of law, we risk having our essential rights eroded. We contribute to strengthening the rule of law by learning and complying with our legal obligations, working within our legal system for appropriate reforms, and enforcing our legal rights.
Lawyers of the Utah State Bar are committed to support and defend the rule of law, and particularly support the independent judicial branch of our government. Keeping the judiciary independent of political or popular pressure, and of private interest, helps ensure that every person has a fair opportunity to make their case in court before an impartial judge, and to ensure constitutional and other legal rights.
Constitutional rights are protected in part through judicial interpretation of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright secured the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants unable to afford legal representation in felony cases. The decision was grounded in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees criminal defendants “the assistance of counsel.” The court decided assistance of legal counsel is essential for a defendant to be treated fairly when faced with serious criminal charges.
There is no constitutional guarantee of counsel in civil cases. Through its pro bono and modest means lawyer referral programs, the Utah State Bar is working hard to help more people have access to an attorney. See www.utahbar.org for more details. Also see about our Magna Carta essay competition for eighth through twelfth graders (with scholarship prizes up to $500). You can also find details of the Bar’s statewide traveling exhibit about Magna Carta. The tour begins with an open house at the Utah State Bar (645 S. 200 East) on April 3, 4-6 p.m. Please join the celebration of Magna Carta and the rule of law.