Magna Carta and The Constitution

About the Film

Magna Carta was sealed by King John in the summer of 1215, in a muddy field in Runnymede outside of London. Up until this moment, monarchs ruled as if they had powers given to them by God, but after, they agreed to be limited by the law of the land. This was the starting point for the English tradition of the rule of law and the right to due process–ideas that became fundamental principles in America.

Edward-CokeOver the next 400 years, Magna Carta was renounced, reaffirmed and eventually forgotten. But this changed in the 17th century when Sir Edward Coke brought the document back to life. Coke was an influential English judge and legal historian who argued all free Englishmen had rights the King had to respect. Magna Carta, Coke alleged, was the source of those rights.

It was Coke’s interpretation of Magna Carta that sailed with the colonists to the New World. Magna Carta became a rallying cry at the start of the Revolution and, eventually, the colonists incorporated ideas that evolved from Magna Carta and Coke’s interpretation of it into their new Constitution. Fair trials, habeas corpus, and an independent judiciary can all be traced back to Magna Carta and Coke’s writings. The connection is even stronger in the Bill of Rights, where the 5th and 14th amendments provide a right to due process.

Over time, the Supreme Court has been instrumental in ensuring that all Americans have the same fundamental rights to due process and that rule of law is protected and preserved. So in 1931, when nine young black men in Alabama known as the Scottsboro Boys were convicted of rape and sentenced to death without a lawyer, the Supreme Court agreed to hear their appeal alleging that their right to due process had been violated. In Powell v. Alabama, the Court insisted for the first time that states had to protect the right to due process.

And the Supreme Court has played a key role in affirming the rule of law. In the height of the Watergate scandal, the Supreme Court declared in a unanimous decision in U.S. v. Nixon that no one, not even the President, is above the law.

Framers-and-The-ConstitutionThe sealing of Magna Carta was the first time that a King agreed to be bound by the law and to respect certain rights of his subjects. Those ideas have been expanded over centuries to form bedrock principles that Americans live by today. No one is above the law, and we all have rights that our government must protect. 




Further Reading

“Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” Exhibition at The Library of Congress

Professor Nicholas Vincent on the consequences of Magna Carta

Professor A.E. Dick Howard, “Magna Carta: 800 years after Runnymede”

BBC Radio series, The Road to Magna Carta

Powell v. Alabama

United States v. Nixon



Producers, Robe Imbriano and Maria Matasar-Padilla
Writer and Narrator, Robe Imbriano
Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Graphic Animators, Victoria Nece, Hiroaki Sasa, Thomas Curtis and Stephanie Gould
Photography, Edward Marritz, Brett Wiley, Matthew Green, and Thorsten Thielow
Senior Production Associate, Bonnie Birmingham
Sound, Mark Mandler, Peter Ginsburg, Michael Boyle, Peter Penebre and Sam Brolan
Music, Audio Network
Head of Production, Innbo Shim
Production Accountants, Mara Connolly and Andrea Yellen
Assistant to the Executive Producer, Rachael Benjamin
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin


Jury Selection: Edmonson v. Leesville

About the Film

“The little man can win,” says Thaddeus Edmonson, “but you have to fight.”

In 1984, Thaddeus Edmonson was working on a construction site in Louisiana when he was badly injured on the job. Though the construction company, Leesville Concrete, covered his expenses for a time, in the end he was left with piles of bills he had no way to pay. So he sued.

A simple personal injury suit, right? Well, not this one. This case wound up in the Supreme Court of the United States.

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Whenever a jury is selected lawyers on both sides get to excuse a number of potential jurors without explanation. They’re called peremptory challenges and lawyers, on the whole, think they’re a good thing. “If I have a bad vibe,” says Edmonson’s lawyer, James Doyle, “I’m going to listen to my vibes because I’ve learned over the years that they’re generally correct.” But what if a lawyer’s vibe isn’t based on anything a juror does or says? What if it’s based on something else – something like a person’s race?

Well, the lawyers for Leesville Concrete excluded two potential jurors solely because of their race … and Edmondson thought that was wrong. He fought from the courtroom in Lake Charles, LA, all the way to the Supreme Court in Washington DC, which had ruled in 1986 that jurors couldn’t be excluded in criminal cases, but had said nothing about civil cases like Edmonson’s

In 1991 the highest court in the land decided in favor of Edmonson. Since then, because a construction worker from Louisiana battled for what he believed was right, no potential juror in any American court can be excluded from a jury because of race.

Jury Selection: Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Company tells the story of how one man’s personal injury suit became a fight to protect every person’s Constitutional rights.

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Writer, Producer and Narrator, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Gregory Blanc
Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Graphics Animators, Victoria Nece and Hiroaki Sasa
Photography, Edward Marritz
Production Associate, Andy Ogden
Consultant, María E. Matasar-Padilla
Coordinating Producers, Christina Lowery and Heidi Christenson
Sound, Mark Mandler and Roger Phenix
Music, Ben Decter and Gavin Allen
Additional Graphics, Tristian Goik and Michael Truong
Production Accountants, Mara Connolly and Andrea Yellen
Interns, Andrew Mangino and Carla Altaras
Assistant to the Executive Producer, Lauren Mitte
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin

One Man Changes the Constitution

About the Film

In the mid-twentieth century, a landmark Supreme Court case proves the Constitution’s resilience. In Gideon v. Wainwright, one man who thinks he was denied a basic right seeks the help of the Supreme Court. Clarence Earl Gideon was sitting in prison after having been found guilty of stealing pocket change and some liquor from a pool hall where he was known as one of the regulars. It was bad enough that he claimed he was innocent; but he also claimed that his Constitutional rights had been violated by the very court that tried and convicted him.

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It was Gideon’s belief – his other conviction, if you will – that the Constitution guaranteed him the right to a lawyer to defend him in court but the judge who presided over his trial refused to appoint counsel to assist him. As it happened, until that time, the courts agreed that Gideon was wrong.

As judges interpreted the Constitution until 1963, not every defendant throughout the 50 states could claim such a right. But lightning comes from the ground up. And when a yellow piece of prison stationary with a poor man’s scribblings landed in the mailroom of the highest court in the land, arguing that he should be heard, there was enough change in the air to suggest that the time for a universal right to counsel had come.

Further Reading

Look at Gideon’s handwritten petition to the Supreme Court, housed at the National Archives

Read the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the Right to Counsel

Read about the history and current struggles to protect the Right to Counsel


Producer and Writer, Robe Imbriano
Associate Producer, Maria E. Matasar-Padilla
Editors, Sak Costanzo and Liz Mermin
Graphics Animator, Stevie Clifton
Director of Photography, Edward Marritz
Narrator, Erik Todd Dellums
Host, Dan Harris
Production Associate, Konstantinos Kambouroglou
Coordinating Producer, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Sound, Mark Mandler
Music, Gavin Allen and Ben Decter
Associate Editor, Marc Tidalgo
Senior Editorial Producer, Todd Brewster
Senior Producer, Kayce Freed Jennings
Executive Producer, Tom Yellin