We often hear about the Magna Carta and how that great document eventually led to our Declaration of Independence. But, what was the Magna Carta all about? In 2015, San Antonio’s own Prof. Vincent R.  Johnson at St. Mary’s Law School wrote a nice piece about the Magna Carta. He explained in his article what was so new and ground-breaking about the “Great Charter.”

One of the problems with the Magna Carta, he explains, is that it is not organized by topics. One must study the whole document to understand it.

One of the first topics Prof. Johnson mentions is due process. The bad King John would frequently take action “by force of arms against recalcitrants as though assured of their guilt, without waiting for legal procedure.” In some cases, noblemen were deprived of their estates not by their peers, but entirely by Crown nominees. So, Clause 39 states: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.” Without due process, nothing else matters. No right can be protected without due process. This clause ensured the king could not seize property aided and abetted by his cronies.

Today, we often cite the Magna Carta as the basis for trial by jury. Prof. Johnson explains that some historians disagree. Clause 39 refers to judgment by one’s equal peers. But, one historian says the “judgment” refers to the initial decision regarding how trial would be conducted. The jury of peers would decide whether trial would be by ordeal, by hot iron or by water, compurgation, wager of law, trial by battle, or production of charter. Judgment, according to this view, did not refer to the final decision, but to the method to reach that final decision. The men of the time believed that God would render the final decision after one of these trial methods.

“Compurgation” refers to the medieval practice of of allowing the accused to swear an oath regarding his innocence. The accused would then need an oath from a certain number, often 12, other persons saying they believed the oath of the accused person.

But, added the professor, regarding a dispute between then King John and King Alexander of Scotland, the Magna Carta provided that a dispute over hostages should be resolved by judgment of his equals in “our court.” So, at least when trial by combat or by ordeal was not possible, the signers of the Magna Carta believed that trial by peers was the solution. So, suggests Prof. Johnson, some portions of the Carta did indeed refer to the trial itself, not simply the means by which trial would be conducted.

Clause 39 also presented a new form of evidence. It required that in the future, no official shall place a man on trial upon his own unsupported statement. He must produce credible witnesses to support his own “official” assertion. Officials at the time were generally lords. So, this clause removed from the lords the power to imprison a common man simply on his own, unsupported word.

A well-known provision, Clause 40 provides simply, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” In a time when the Catholic Church would routinely “sell” dispensations, many judges were bribed to rule one way or the other. This provision set a new standard, by which justice was (mostly) not for sale. We take judicial independence for granted today, but once, that was not so.

Clause 36: “In [the] future nothing shall be paid or accepted for the issue of a writ of inquisition of life or limbs.” The writ of inquisition allowed a criminal defendant to avoid or delay trial – which was often trial by combat. Some call trial by combat “legalized private revenge,” because the accuser could exact the combat. The writ of inquisition involved a procedure in which one’s neighbors could could exonerate a defendant. The writ, however, was used as a revenue device by King John and was sold only to those with deep pockets. Making this writ freely available decreased the numbers of trials by combat.

The Magna Carta addressed proportionality in sentencing. Clause 20  provided. “For a trivial offense, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offense, and for a serious offense correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein (a feudal tenant) the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy  of a royal court . . . ” The goal was to not reduce a criminal to beggary. There were similar provisions for earls, barons and clergy. The concept, which was new at the time, was to make punishment “fit the crime.” We see this concern still resonating on our modern time when some seek reforms regarding bail. Bail for misdemeanors often result sin persons staying in jail for months before they see a trial.

Widows could be married to any man willing to pay the going rate. The payment would be made to the widow’s feudal overlord. But, some widows were wealthy enough to outbid suitors and buy a charter guaranteeing she would not have to remarry. King John did a fruitful business in selling these charters to women who wished to marry their own choice, or not remarry at all. Clause 8 provides, “No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she wishes to remain without a husband. But she must give security that she will not marry without royal consent, if she holds her lands of the Crown, or without consent of whatever the lord she may hold them of.” This provision created new legal rights for women. This was not true freedom, but it was a step.

Clause 1 was addressed “TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM.” Clearly, the rights in the Magna Carta were guaranteed to all free men, meaning not to vassals and the like. Clause 40, which guaranteed access to justice, was not limited to free men. It simply said “to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” So, Clause 40 was much broader in scope than just the free men. And, Clause 60 asked that regarding all these rights, “let men of our kingdom . . . observe them similarly in their relations with their own men.” Clause 60 then expressed the hope that these rights would be extended by the free men to to those not free.

The treatment of debtors was addressed. Clause 9 provided that the King would not seize any land or or rent in payment of a debt, so long as the debtor had movable goods with which to pay the debt. That means the creditor could not seize land when smaller goods would suffice to pay the debt. That provision provided some protection in an agrarian society, so the debtor could still earn a living.

The Magna Carta was not a perfect document. But, it was ahead of its time. The protections afforded the common free man far surpassed that found in other countries of the time. It was to these protections that the Founding Fathers looked in 1776.