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The Magna Carta reaches celebrity status as its 800th anniversary nears

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Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts features one of four original copies known to exist. Photo by Kathy Anderson.

The ABA launched its yearlong commemoration of the Magna Carta's 800th anniversary with a bang in August at the annual meeting in Boston.

The festivities will culminate next June with four days of educational programs, ceremonies and social events in London, followed by a rededication of the ABA's monument to the Magna Carta in the meadow at Runnymede alongside the River Thames where English King John placed his seal on the document on June 15, 1215.

The Magna Carta is widely viewed by legal historians as one of the founding documents of modern democracy and constitutional government. It contains language that gave early expression to principles of due process, separation of powers, rights to a fair trial, and the supremacy of the rule of law over the power of kings and other rulers.

The document clearly was the star of the show in Boston. U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. devoted his entire 21-minute speech to the House of Delegates to its history and heritage. Roberts said the individuals who met at Runnymede "were pursuing their own interests rather than an heroic cause beyond themselves. The barons took what they could get, and King John kept what he could keep. But when we talk about Magna Carta today, we are not celebrating antiquated relics of a time long past. Instead, we are referring to a small collection of provisions that express kernels of transcendent significance."

Today, Roberts said, the Magna Carta is recognized "because it laid the foundation for the ascent of liberty" and constitutional democracy. "We celebrate not so much what happened 800 years ago, but what has transpired since."

John Roberts speaks at the 2014 ABA Annual Meeting

Photo of Chief Justice John Roberts by Kathy Anderson.

Elsewhere inside the Hynes Convention Center, the ABA unveiled a traveling exhibition, Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy 1215-2015, which was developed and curated by the Law Library of Congress in conjunction with the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress. The exhibit, which tells the Magna Carta's story using video, words and images from the Law Library of Congress, will tour the country over the coming year, making stops at law schools, courthouses, bar centers, libraries and other venues. (Click here to see the exhibit's travel schedule.)

Annual meeting attendees also could register to attend the ABA's 2015 London Sessions from June 11 to 15 (as of mid-August, about 300 registration spots still were open), and purchase two new commemorative books. Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 is a coffee-table book that tells the document's story through illustrations and essays written by legal experts from the United Kingdom and the United States. The ABA partnered with Third Millennium Publishing in London to produce the book. Also available is Magna Carta and the Rule of Law, sponsored by the ABA Section of International Law. It takes a strong scholarly approach in analyzing how the Magna Carta became an icon of democratic principles and constitutional law.


Magna Carta references also were prominent outside the ABA Annual Meeting. Special banners on lampposts throughout the central city touted a special exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts that featured one of the four original copies of the document that are known to still exist. The exhibition, Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty, also contained pieces from the museum's American collection, such as the Sons of Liberty Bowl crafted by Paul Revere, that show the importance of principles expressed in the Magna Carta to the political thinking of American colonial leaders as they made their break from British rule.

The copy of the Magna Carta on display at the museum, which has been in possession of Lincoln Cathedral since it was sealed in 1215, will be on display starting in November at the Library of Congress before returning to London for the 800th anniversary ceremonies. Its appearance in Boston was made possible partly through the efforts of Alice E. Richmond, a Boston attorney who serves as deputy chair of the ABA's Magna Carta anniversary committee (and is a member of the Journal's Board of Editors), and Massachusetts State Rep. Cory Atkins, D-Concord.
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