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Magna Carta, limiting the whims of rulers for over 800 years

On June 15, 1215, on a field outside London, a group of barons met with the King of England to sign what would become one of the most influential documents ever written, Magna Carta.  King John, widely regarded as the one of the worst kings to ever sit on the English throne, had waged an unsuccessful war against France in an attempt to win back territory he had lost.  To pay for the ultimately unsuccessful war, King John seized lands, levied huge taxes, and charged exorbitant fines for small offenses.  Fed up, the barons revolted and seized London.  They forced the King, who saw him rule as ordained by God, to sign a document that would instead limit him by “the law of the land.” For the first time, Magna Carta offered protection against the arbitrary will of the King, preventing him from locking people up and seizing property without what would later become know as “due process.” 

Of course, a few weeks after Magna Carta was signed King John got the Pope to declare Magna Carta invalid, thrusting both sides back into conflict.  But subsequent kings and British legal minds, such as Sir Edward Coke, would bring Magna Carta back and ensure that its protections against the arbitrary whims of a ruler became the lasting law of the land.  And when colonists settled in the New World, they took those ideas with them, enshrining them in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  

Magna Carta was the first step towards ensuring that no king, queen or president could be above the law — an idea that remains just as important today as it was on a field outside London over 800 years ago.

Learn more about Magna Carta and the limits of executive authority from our film Magna Carta and the Constitution.

 

 

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The Pentagon Papers and the press’s check on executive authority

46 years ago today, the first of what would become known as the Pentagon Papers were published by The New York Times.  The papers were a classified report that contained damning evidence that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson had been lying to the public and Congress about the Vietnam War, and that the administration had secretly expanded the size of the war to include surrounding countries.  The report was leaked by one of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg.  President Richard Nixon, Johnson’s successor, sued The Times to prevent further publication of the papers, so The Washington Post and other publications printed them instead.

On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in New York Times Co. v. United States that the White House had failed to show proper cause to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers and that The New York Times was protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of the Press.  In his concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote of the essential role the press plays in our democracy.  “In the First Amendment, Black wrote, “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Learn more about the Pentagon Papers in our film Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States.

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Your right to remain silent

“You have the right to remain silent….”  Anyone who has seen a cop show in the past half century knows the rest.  This phrase is called the Miranda warning, and it comes from a Supreme Court opinion that was announced 51 years ago today.  Miranda v. Arizona established the idea that criminal defendants must be informed of their rights to an attorney and against self-incrimination prior to interrogation in order for any of their statements to be admissible in court.  

In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested and charged with kidnapping, rape and armed robbery.  After he was picked out in a police lineup, Miranda was subjected to a prolonged interrogation, after which he confessed.  Miranda, a 9th grade dropout, was not informed of his constitutional rights.  Based largely on his confession, Miranda was found guilty and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison.

Miranda appealed, and in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Miranda’s rights had been violated.  The language of what would go on to become the Miranda warning was taken nearly word-for-word from the Supreme Court opinion authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren.  “He must be warned prior to any questioning,” wrote Warren, “that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that, if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.”

Learn more in our film The Right to Remain Silent: Miranda v. Arizona.

 

 

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15 years later, Guantanamo remains open

Nine years ago today, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, which granted habeas corpus to Guantanamo detainees, allowing them to challenge their detention in US courts.  Today, of the 779 people who have been held in Guantanamo, only 41 remain..  However, despite pledges to close that facility, former President Barack Obama failed to get congressional approval to shut down down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.  Rather than close it, President Donald Trump has pledged to “load it up with bad dudes,” and once even suggested that he might attempt to send American citizens there.

Learn more in our film Habeas Corpus: The Guantanamo Cases.

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The Supreme Court rules against North Carolina gerrymandering… again

The Supreme Court earlier struck down gerrymandering in US Congressional Districts 1 & 12 (USGS)

The Supreme Court today ruled that North Carolina had violated the 14th Amendment when it used race to redraw several state legislature districts.  In North Carolina v. Sandra Little Covington, the Court upheld a Federal District Court ruling that the Republican-controlled state legislature had redrawn 28 state house and state senate districts based largely on race, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Two weeks ago, in Cooper v. Harris, the Court overturned two U.S. Congressional districts in North Carolina for the same reason.  And a week earlier, the Court let stand a Federal Court ruling that a North Carolina voter law had adversely targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.”

Learn more about the history of racially-based gerrymandering in our film One Person, One Vote

 

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