Law Day's focus on iconic Magna Carta served as backdrop for annual awards



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It was 800 years ago that the king of England and a group of disgruntled nobles signed Magna Carta, an often-misunderstood agreement.

Magna Carta has become such a symbol of liberty and the rule of law that the American Bar Association chose it as the theme for this year’s Law Day.

The ABA has long acted in support of preserving Magna Carta history and, at least since 1957, the site of its signing, Runnymede in England.

As part of its resources for Law Day, ABA offered The Magna Carta Chronicle, A Young Person's Guide to 800 Years in the Fight for Freedom, on its website. And Magna Carta is currently the focus of the ABA Division of Public Education Icon of Liberty website.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association and Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School honored the Magna Carta theme as they co-hosted the annual Law Day luncheon and awards presentation last Friday.

They invited Dr. Sally Hadden, an associate professor at Western Michigan University and scholar on the subject of American legal and constitutional history, to tell the large crowd in attendance more about what the Magna Carta really says and the role it has played in the history of limiting the power of monarchies and governments.

WMU-Cooley’s Devon Schindler said in his introduction that Hadden is one of the leading experts in the country on Magna Carta. He joked about Dr. Hadden receiving her J.D. from Harvard Law School and her doctorate in history from Harvard University, “I think that’s Harvard Squared.”

She has authored or co-authored three books since her first in 2001, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Hadden provided attendees a one-sheet guide to the actual points included in Magna Carta. Almost all of them  narrowly concern the dispute between 25 barons and King John of England, an unlikely candidate for the throne among the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When he came to power in 1199, John ruled over a large territory, encompassing much of what is now France.

Hadden recommended the film The Lion in Winter as a “fairly faithful rendering” of what happened next.

“He was a bad military leader, a poor money manager, and a pretty unpleasant man personally,” she said. He lost a lot of the land he’d inherited and therefore the money associated with it, and as a result turned to unethical and criminal means of recouping revenues from the nobles of England.

Magna Carta was an attempt to resolve that problem, and became for decades primarily a code of customs and laws as they applied to a specific time and place. But many of the principles and procedures now standard in English and U.S. law were derived from kernels of wisdom in the Magna Carta.

As Hadden’s handout phrased it, Magna Carta called for “No trials begun without credible accusers” and “Due process with jury made up of peers.” There were smaller points which supported the equitable rule of law versus the uneven rule of human beings, such as holding courts in fixed places rather than following the royal court, and curbing “excessive fines.”

It also began the process that became Parliament — and broaden the notion of who wields power —by creating a council of 25 noblemen to review royal decisions.

While Magna Carta’s potency waned at times, Sir Edward Coke, who regarded it as “a statement of individual liberty,” used it as a tool against the Divine Right of Kings philosophy monarchs espoused in the 17th century. That led to the forging of the English Bill of Rights, “a new document that was a general description of liberty and where political sovereignty lay,” Dr. Hadden said.

From there, such writers as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson went back to its principles in providing the framework for the fledgling United States.

“Magna Carta’s next meaning and reincarnation is probably right around the corner,” Hadden said.

Preceding her remarks, awards were given to several people who embody, in word and in action, belief in the fair and equitable rule of law.

Two people received the Bar’s Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award: Richard E. Hillary Sr., Kent County Office of the Defender, and H. Rhett Pinsky of Pinsky Smith Fayette and Kennedy.

Ann Cooper, Of Counsel at Drew, Cooper, and Anding, won the President’s Award, and Colin M. Sullivan of Hudsonville Public Schools was given the Liberty Bell Award for his work with a “We the People” competition team.

WMU-Cooley’s Marion Hilligan Public Service Award, went to James S. Brady of Dykema.
More detail will follow in future Grand Rapids Legal News issues.