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Virginia to launch U.S. Magna Carta observance

King John signing the Magna Carta, England, 1215

King John signing the Magna Carta in England, 1215

The document that inaugurated the concept of constitutional government eight centuries ago will get an international celebration this year, with a grand premiere in Williamsburg this month.

A renowned British historian and an authoritative Virginia constitutional law professor will join hands to host the observance of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta at the Virginia Bar Association annual meeting beginning Jan. 22.

“We have, in effect, pride of place in kicking off the anniversary year,” said University of Virginia law Prof. A.E. Dick Howard, as he discussed plans for a series of events at Virginia sites.

Howard will be joined by the United Kingdom’s point person for the Magna Carta celebration, Sir Robert Worcester, the dean emeritus of the University of Kent.

Worcester will appear at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, then at James Madison’s Montpelier and finally at the College of William of Mary.

All the locations have connections with the work of the founding fathers to build on the legacy of the Magna Carta in fashioning this nation’s constitutional government.

“I think you could argue convincingly Virginia is the bridge between the Magna Carta and English and American constitutionalism,” Howard said.

Worcester will speak at the VBA meeting on Friday, Jan. 23, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Howard. Other panelists will include U.Va. constitutional law Prof. Risa L. Goluboff, Judge Roger L. Gregory of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and state Solicitor General Stuart L. Raphael.

Howard said he has asked the panelists to comment on the significance of the Magna Carta as reflected in modern legal precepts, including the limitation of executive power, the concept of constitutional supremacy and the recognition of personal autonomy.

“We’re hoping it will give the lawyers there a sense of the organic unfolding of American constitutional law. That’s the game plan,” Howard said.

There’s more to the program than history, Howard was quick to note, since the principles of the Magna Carta continue to serve as models for countries around the world in establishing their own forms of constitutional government.

Virginia is not alone in celebrating the milestone of 800 years of government under rule of law.

The American Bar Association is planning a series of events to culminate with commemorative meetings and events in London and Runnymede in June.

Already, a traveling exhibition is making stops at law schools, courthouses, bar centers, libraries and other venues.

The Library of Congress is displaying one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta.

Not a bad tour package for a one-page contract between a reluctant king and some disgruntled barons who demanded a set of ground rules for their people in 1215. Among the concessions by King John I in the Magna Carta was an acknowledgement that every person had to obey the law, even the king. John also agreed to the right of trial by jury.

Afflicted with buyer’s remorse, King John prevailed on the Pope to overturn his deal with the barons, but the significance of the “great charter” was not lost. Later developments built on the idea that there was a set of immutable rules that even the king could not avoid.

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