The first scholarly edition of the Magna Carta was published in 1759 by the English jurist William Blackstone, whose work was a source for U.S. constitutional law. It was entitled “The Great Charter and the Charter of the Forest,” following earlier practice. Both charters are highly significant today.
The first, the Charter of Liberties, is widely recognized to be the cornerstone of the fundamental rights of the English-speaking peoples – or as Winston Churchill put it more expansively, “the charter of every self-respecting man at any time in any land.”
In 1679 the Charter was enriched by the Habeas Corpus Act, formally titled “an Act for the better securing the liberty of the subject, and for prevention of imprisonment beyond the seas.” The modern harsher version is called “rendition” – imprisonment for the purpose of torture.
Along with much of English law, the Act was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, which affirms that “the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended” except in case of rebellion or invasion. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the rights guaranteed by this Act were “(c)onsidered by the Founders as the highest safeguard of liberty.”
More specifically, the Constitution provides that no “person (shall) be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law (and) a speedy and public trial” by peers.
The Department of Justice has recently explained that these guarantees are satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch, as Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in TheNew York Times on May 29. Barack Obama, the constitutional lawyer in the White House, agreed. King John would have nodded with satisfaction.
The underlying principle of “presumption of innocence” has also been given an original interpretation. In the calculus of the president’s “kill list” of terrorists, “all military-age males in a strike zone” are in effect counted as combatants “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” Becker and Shane summarized. Thus post-assassination determination of innocence now suffices to maintain the sacred principle.
This is the merest sample of the dismantling of “the charter of every self-respecting man.”