Magna CartaMagna Carta at 800: Still Relevant Today

By Nina Joan Kimball

Eight hundred years ago today (June 15, 1215), on the meadow of Runnymede, which lies between London and Windsor Castle, the rebel barons forced King John of England to agree to the terms of Magna Carta – Latin for the Great Charter. Most of the 63 original clauses of Magna Carta represent a set of grievances – primarily concerning King John’s many ways of raising money for his wars – including “scutage,” fees, aid, and “amercements.” [1] Clause 12, which provided that “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm,” became the bedrock for the principle of no taxation without representation which was used by the American Colonists to justify their independence from England.[2] The Colonists were Englishmen. For centuries they had enjoyed the fundamental right to protect their property from arbitrary confiscation by consenting, through their representatives in Parliament, to the monarch’s demands for money. Indeed the Declaration of Independence, with its list of grievances against King George III, reads much like Magna Carta.

Other clauses of Magna Carta that underlie our rights and liberties include Clause 39, that “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” Clause 40 provides, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”[3] These clauses evolved into trial by jury, due process and the right to a speedy trial among other things.[4]

Magna Carta also included many clauses specifically related to medieval aristocratic society, such as those concerning knight service, holding land by “socage or burgage,” or fishing weirs on the Thames. There are clauses that I can only guess at the meaning of, such as merchants must be able to “buy and sell free from all maletotes.” There are some interesting clauses concerning the rights of widows, revealing feminist principles dating back to the 13th century, such as Clause 8, which states that “No widow shall be compelled to marry so long as she wishes to live without a husband.”[5]

Magna Carta of 1215 was meant to produce peace, but did not, and was immediately rejected by King John.[6]   The fact that he died within a year, and his young son Henry III was in constant need of money, meant that the king had to negotiate with not just his barons, but with the clergy and the commons.   Consequently, Magna Carta was re-issued in 1216, 1217 and again in 1225 under Henry III.[7] Magna Carta became important both for what it represented as well as what it said. In England, it came to represent the rights of Parliament against the king and the principle of limited monarchy.[8] This was in contrast to absolute monarchy, which developed in France and other countries where the king had far more power over his councilors and the people than in England. Here in America, Magna Carta was used to establish individual rights of the people against authority of any kind – first against both the king and Parliament in England, and later as a check against legislative, executive and judicial authority.[9]

Magna Carta is still relevant today.  Its principles were embodied in our Bill of Rights (1791) and have been incorporated into constitutions of many countries as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention of Human Rights (1950).[10] It was part of the English common law that existed in the Colonies at the time of Independence. Clause 40 seems to be of particular significance in the current debate over campaign financing. Indeed this very clause was cited in April of this year by the Supreme Court in a case concerning judicial election campaigns. In upholding a Florida law that prohibits judicial candidates from soliciting campaign contributions, Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion cited Clause 40 of Magna Carta as authority, stating “Judges, charged with exercising strict neutrality and independence, cannot supplicate campaign donors without diminishing public confidence in judicial integrity. This principle dates back at least eight centuries to Magna Carta, which proclaimed, ‘To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.’” Justice Roberts goes on to say that this same concept underlies the judicial oath “to administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.” Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 135 S. Ct. 1656, 1666 (Apr. 29, 2015).

We celebrate Magna Carta on its 800th anniversary because, like our own Constitution, it declared broad principles that were adaptable to changing times.  While the specific rights and liberties that we cherish today are different from the rights the barons fought for 800 years ago, the broad principle that the barons fought for, that there are rights that the sovereign power must respect, is the same.

[1] See generally J.C. Holt, Magna Carta, Appendix IV, text of Magna Carta of 1215 (1965).

[2] The principle of no taxation without representation evolved over centuries. Magna Carta itself only protected the rights of the barons, the king’s immediate vassals, not to be taxed without their consent. The barons did not represent the people, but were instead a feudal court. The first parliament in England was not summoned until 1254, which was the first time that knights of the shire were summoned to a “parliamentum” to consent to a grant for the king. Frederick Maitland, The Constitutional History of England, 72 (1918). It took to the end of the 13th century (by 1295) until parliament would resemble something more akin to a national assembly with representatives of the clergy, the barons and the commons (knights of the shire and burgesses from the boroughs). Id. at 75.

[3] Holt, App. IV, M.C. 1215 Cl. 39 & 40.

[4] It is important to recognize that the rights we enjoy today, such as trial by jury, evolved out of something that was very different in 1215. When the barons forced King John to agree that “no free man” would be judged except by “the lawful judgment of his peers” what they were demanding was to be judged by a peer, not an inferior. Thus a baron would be judged by a baron, a burgess by a burgess. F. Pollock & F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law, Vol. I, 173 n.3 (2d ed. 1898) (reissued 1968).

[5] Holt, App. IV, M.C. 1215, Cl. 8.

[6] Holt, at 1.

[7] F. Maitland, at 69-70.

[8] In the 17th Century Magna Carta was resurrected by Parliament in its battle against Charles I who attempted to govern and raise money without Parliament. Sir Edward Coke, who declared that “Magna Carta is such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign,” helped Parliament in 1628 to draft the Petition of Right, which limited royal power and referred to Magna Carta as legal authority. Claire Breay & Julian Harrison, Magna Carta: an introduction,

[9] Holt, at 15.

[10] C. Breay & J. Harrison, supra.


award imageIn 2015, Nina and Justine were honored to be selected for the seventh year by Thomson Reuters/Boston Magazine as Massachusetts Super Lawyers, New England Super Lawyers in the area of Employment & Labor Law, and Top Women Attorneys in Massachusetts.  


legal briefs imageOn April 8, 2015, Nina co-authored and filed an amicus brief in Shervin v. Partners Healthcare, a case in the First Circuit, arguing for an expansive reading of the continuing violation rule in Massachusetts as applying not just to cases of harassment (the federal rule), but more broadly in the right circumstances to cases involving discrete acts of discrimination and retaliation as well.

?Today April 1 we celebrate the 17 year anniversary of our opening day here at Kimball Brousseau! While the years have passed, and we have had some changes at the firm, our commitment to our clients and legal community remain the same.

Rnews imageemember: The new Parental Leave Act goes into effect on April 7.  See our Client Alert on changes to the Parental Leave Act.

April 14 is a busy day for the Kimball Brousseau attorneys with Nina presenting the Employment Law Update at the Massachusetts Bar Association Spring Conference 12:30-2:00 p.m. at Suffolk University and Justine will be speaking from 4:00-6:00 p.m. at the Boston Bar Association on “The New Massachusetts Leave Laws: Domestic Violence, Parental Leave, and Earned Sick Time.”

? Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) put on a seminar/webinar on the “Top 25 Key Cases Every Employment Litigator & Counselor Must Know” on February 25, 2015. Nina was one of three panelists who presented these 25 key cases.


Pay equity race imageAs Co-chair of the Women’s Bar Association Pay Equity Task Force, Nina helped draft legislation that was filed in the Legislature in January 2015 to amend the state Equal Pay Act. She is now working as part of the Equal Pay Coalition to build broad based support for the legislation.
? Nina is continuing to co-chair a bipartisan committee that is drafting Parental Leave Regulations for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to enforce the state’s parental leave law that was amended in January 2015 to be gender neutral.

? Justine is continuing to serve as Coordinator for the MCAD Regulations Project, consisting of three bipartisan committees that are drafting proposed regulations for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and she is co-chairing the Disability Regulations Committee.