U.S. Department of Justice
15 June 2015
(Remarks as Prepared for Delivery)
Thank you, Secretary [Philip] Hammond, for that kind introduction. Your Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, honored guests – it is a pleasure to be here this morning, and a great privilege to join you all at this important commemoration.
Eight hundred years ago, on the grounds of Runnymede, King John sealed a piece of parchment – a Great Charter – that extended basic rights to individuals subject to his reign. That Magna Carta was neither expansive nor long-lived – its rules applied to only a small group of noblemen, and it was first annulled just 10 weeks after being sealed. But its adoption served as a signpost on a long and difficult march, and those who forged its compromise stood as early travelers on the road to justice. While the hands that wrote the Magna Carta have long been stilled, the principles they carved out of the struggles of their day – of the struggles of the human condition – live on.
Seven and a half centuries after that historic day, in 1957, a crowd of 5,000 people walked in storied footsteps to dedicate this memorial and to recognize its significance. Among them was Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of America’s Supreme Court and one of our nation’s greatest jurists, who noted in an opinion a year later that principles traced back to Magna Carta represented a concept that is “nothing less than the dignity of man.”
For Chief Justice Warren, and for the many American lawyers and jurists who gathered by his side, this monument had special meaning, because Magna Carta had come to symbolize more than a simple agreement between noblemen and their king. This social contract between a monarch and his people codified, however imperfectly, notions that would one day stand at the heart of our own system of justice: the idea that no power is unconditional, and no rule is absolute; that we are not subjugated by an infallible authority, but share authority with our fellow citizens. That all are protected by the law, just as all must answer to the law. These fundamental, age-old principles have given hope to those who face oppression. They have given a voice to those yearning for the redress of wrongs. And they have served as the bedrock of free societies around the globe, inspiring countless women and men seeking to weave their promise into reality.
For those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, the significance of Magna Carta was clear. Its influence helped shape a political system that enshrines separation of powers, due process and the rule of law; a legal system that recognizes and honors the dignity of all people; and a commitment to ongoing efforts to realize these ideals in every interaction between our citizens and our institutions.
Even today, America continues to pursue these goals. We are engaged in initiatives to promote trust and understanding between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. We are working with partners in the United States and around the world to pursue those who would deny human dignity, whether through trafficking or corruption, violence or terrorism. And we are carrying out a historic reorientation of our criminal justice practices to end an overreliance on incarceration. At every turn, we are driven by that same devotion to the rule of law whose seeds took root in this field so long ago.
Of course, our journey has not been easy, and it is far from over. Just as men and women of great conscience and strong will have, over eight centuries, worked to advance the cause that animated their forebears – in nations around the world – we too must advance and extend the promise that lies at the heart of our global community. We too must deliver on the spirit of Magna Carta. And we too must carry forward our work to new fields of equality, opportunity and justice.
On the day that this monument was dedicated in 1957, one of the former presidents of the American Bar Association called his journey to Runnymede a “devout pilgrimage to the ancestral home, to the well springs of our profession, to the fountainhead of our faith.” Today, we not only pay tribute to the source of our legal doctrine – we reaffirm our devotion to its values and recommit ourselves to the service of its most treasured ideals. As we go forward, I am proud, I am honored and I am humbled to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of you in our shared pursuit of a more just world.
Thank you all, once again, for the opportunity to take part in this commemoration. Thank you for your dedication to the ennobling ideals we are here to celebrate. I look forward to all that our nations will achieve together in the spirit of their promise in the years ahead.