On the ninth floor of a downtown courthouse where the Constitution is etched in its glass facade, judges and lawyers gathered this week to celebrate the English barons who 800 years ago rose up and defied the King of England.
For lovers of the law, people like attorney Hugh M. Russ III, there are few moments in its history more significant, more relevant, even today, than the revolt that gave birth to the Magna Carta.
In the legal community where documents are revered, even treasured, it’s a piece of paper that is celebrated by Russ and other lawyers for what it inspired nearly six centuries later – the founding legal principles of a new country.
“If you were to choose one document that served as the basis for democracy and individual rights and people empowering the government instead of the king dictating to the people, this would be it,” Russ said.
He was among the lawyers and judges who gathered this week at the Robert H. Jackson Federal Courthouse to kick off a two-week-long exhibit celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800-year anniversary.
The exhibit, organized by the Erie County Bar Association, features images of the Magna Carta, a video presentation and other related items from the Library of Congress. Located in the lobby of the courthouse, it is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, through April 21.
“In this day of everything, we take for granted our basic freedoms,” said Laurie Styka Bloom, head of the bar association. “It’s important to remind ourselves where things come from.”
Written by a group of 13th-century English barons eager to protect their property rights, the Magna Carta is widely viewed as the foundation of modern democracies.
The document grew out of a dispute between King John, fresh from a battlefield defeat and in need of cash, and the English barons he was trying to tax. When they opposed his efforts and eventually won, the result was a charter preserving their rights.
“It’s really a fundamental document on which our Constitution and Bill of Rights were founded,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr.
Geraci, who traveled from Rochester for the kickoff, was one of several state and federal judges in the audience that welcomed the American Bar Association exhibit to Buffalo.
“We’re proud to host it, and proud to carry out, protect and preserve its ideals,” U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny told the crowd of about 50 people.
While the Magna Carta is credited with giving rise to such fundamental principles as due process and trial by jury, it was the ideal at the core of the document that, even today, is viewed as a legal milestone.
When King John approved the Magna Carta in 1215, he created a landmark legal concept, the notion that no one man, or government, is above the law.
For attorney Kevin W. Spitler, it’s that core ideal that gave birth to the individual rights that help protect his clients from wrongful prosecutions.
“As criminal defense attorneys, we take on clients accused of crimes and we have this tremendous power, the government, bearing down on us and you think, you’re overwhelmed,” Spitler said. “But you’re not overwhelmed because you have the Constitution and the law.”
By the time the Magna Carta took effect, it included 63 clauses dealing with land ownership and taxation. But it was the 39th clause granting all “free men” the right to justice and fair treatment that would stand out over time.
The clause, written in Latin, translates as follows:
“No free man is to 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 judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Buffalo’s courthouse exhibit is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Magna Carta celebrations occurring across the world this year.