In anniversary terms, June 15 may trump all

Judge Avern Cohn graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1949, spending the next 30 years as an attorney before accepting an appointment to the federal bench.

Photo by Robert Chase

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

In 1979, as he awaited appointment to the federal bench, Avern Cohn made "A Pilgrimage" to Runnymede, the "meadow in England where King John and his Barons signed" the Magna Carta, "justly regarded as the foundation of constitutional liberty in the English speaking world."

It was a profound experience for Cohn, who will mark 36 years as a U.S. District judge in September, just months after celebrating his 91st birthday.

"The visit was a moving moment to me, and a fitting way to begin my new responsibilities, and would always be a reminder of the importance of my role, albeit shared by many, of assuring respect for the individual in the law," Cohn wrote in an October 2013 article for the Center for Judicial Studies at Duke Law.

Memories of his 1979 journey have been refreshed this week as the federal jurist observes the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on June 15. As he says, it is an "extraordinary occasion" that transformed governance for centuries and serves as an enduring symbol of liberty and fairness for those who believe in the sanctity of democratic freedoms.

According to Cohn, "two quotations best express the significance of Magna Carta to the English speaking world." Sir Anthony Eden, then-Prime Minister of Great Britain, was the author of one, which he wrote in a letter to a newly formed Magna Carta Trust:

"The 15 June 1215 is rightly regarded as one of the most notable days in the history of the world. Those who were at Runnymede that day could not know the consequences that were to flow from their proceedings. The granting of Magna Carta marked the road to individual freedom, to parliamentary democracy and to the supremacy of the law. The principles of Magna Carta, developed over the centuries by the Common Law, are the heritage now, not only of those who live in these Islands, but in countless millions of all races and creeds throughout the world."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his third inaugural address, viewed the document's significance in a similar vein, according to Cohn.

"The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history. It permeated the ancient life of early peoples. It blazed anew in the middle ages. It was written in Magna Carta."

With those thoughts in mind in 1979, Cohn believed he could "best express the solemnity of my visit" to Runnymede "by using public transportation," a way of travel that "would emphasize in a personal way my commitment to my new role in the life of the law," the Detroit federal judge wrote in the Duke Law article.

"A look at the route, first by tube and then by bus to Egham, the closest town to Runnymede, suggested it would be a very long walk to the meadow," Cohn wrote. "However, the American Bar Association's recognition of the Great Charter in the form of a monument dedicated during the Association's 1957 annual meeting in London was only a very short walk from the bus stop. I chose the monument as the proper place to pay homage."

He soon discovered that there was a "small flaw" in this plan of his.

"The monument is adjacent to a cow pasture, the fence of which had broken down," Cohn related. "What I saw was clear evidence that the cows had also visited the site. Sadly, the (American Bar) Association had failed to follow up the dedication with the presence of a custodian."

Now, some 36 years later, the ABA, to commemorate the milestone anniversary of Magna Carta, is holding its 2015 Annual Meeting in London. As part of the anniversary observance, the ABA will "rededicate the monument, which I am told is now fully protected from intrusion by its bovine neighbors," Cohn wrote in tongue-in-cheek manner.

As such, it figures to be a truly momentous occasion, especially in light of global attacks on the most basic of our precious freedoms. Perhaps it will even stir echoes of the immortal words of Kipling in a poem commemorating the Magna Carta signing:

"At Runnymede, at Runnymede,

Your rights were won at Runnymede!

No freeman shall be fined or bound,

Or dispossessed of freehold ground,

Except by lawful judgment found

And passed upon him by his peers

Forget not, after all these years,

The Charter signed at Runnymede."

Published: Thu, Jun 18, 2015