15 June 2007

June 15, 1215...

on Runnymede Meadow King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta if he wanted to continue to rule England. In effect, it was a contract that the rebellious nobles had him sign limiting his powers in exchange for his right to rule.

The most important limitation of his powers was habeas corpus. It is the cornerstone of freedom in the modern world and it has been in existence for almost 800 years. In the United States it was built into the Constitution and before that the Articles of Confederation. It was suspended by President Lincoln during the Civil War and went into Reconstruction; Congress granted President Clinton leeway with habeas corpus after the bombing in Oklahoma; and finally, in 2001 Congress gave Bush a free hand that he hasn't hesitated to use.

I remember finding the Magna Carta by mistake in the British Museum Library during the last century. I was there with a friend and we got lost ending up in back staircases and hallways. When we entered the room our mouths fell open with the number of documents and books we had read about. I remember standing and staring at the Magna Carta. I had earned my B.A. in History with a focus on Constitutional history that relied heavily on the movement towards democracy and especially with British history. The importance of this document was clear in my mind, and seeing the actual thing was an amazement I had never imagined. It is now in the British Library and I have since seen it again there. It still holds me mesmerized.

If you stop and think about it, the Magna Carta is the beginning of the death of the right of kings. When King John signed it, he was agreeing that his right to rule did not come directly from God. The people, ie the nobles at that time, gave him the authority to rule, along with understandings that he no longer had free rein in certain areas. One of the major things was habeas corpus. He no longer had the right to imprison anyone without showing just cause and without swift justice. It was a true revolutionary change.

What is really amazing is that 800 years later we are again fighting for it. Just this week the 4th District Federal Appeals Court said that the Bush administration could not act outside of the Constitution in holding prisoners without just cause.

Other parts of the world are still fighting for it. We have had this right since the beginning of the country and here we again find that it is still not sacrosanct in the U.S.

Happy Birthday, Habeas Corpus!

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