For centuries Magna Carta has stood for the principle that no man is above the law, not even a king. Although King John’s Magna Carta does not explicitly articulate this idea, it did create checks designed to restrain the king whenever he failed to uphold the terms of the charter. Chapter 61 of King John’s Magna Carta stipulates that twenty-five barons should be selected to ensure that the king upholds all of the provisions of the charter. When the king is in violation, the barons have the authority to seize the king’s properties by military force—or “distrain” him—until he complies.
This provision was left out of later reissues of Magna Carta, but the memory of the barons’ threat of military force against the king made Magna Carta a symbol of the supremacy of the law over the will of the king. What also remained was the understanding that any act by the king or one of his agents that violated the terms of the charter was void, and, in the language of Edward I’s 1297 Confirmation of the Charters, “should be undone and holden for naught.”
For the framers of the United States Constitution, the checks and balances that operated between the three branches of government were a means to prevent any single branch of the government from governing capriciously. Despite the danger that any of the branches might attempt to overreach its enumerated powers, Magna Carta remains to the present day an especially potent symbol for those seeking to limit the powers of the executive branch of the government.
No One Is above the Law
The medieval jurist Henry de Bracton observed in his treatise, On the Laws and Customs of England, that no one is above the law. The law, he explained, makes the king and, therefore, the king must be subject to the law. “The king should be under no man, but under God and the law.” Bracton’s book, which was in part compiled by other authors, was the first to present a comprehensive account of English law. Written between 1220 and 1260, it enjoyed renewed interest after its first appearance in print in 1569.
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Tyrannies Present and Future
Highly distrustful of concentrated political power, Thomas Jefferson supported the creation of a bill of rights as a curb on the executive and legislative branches of the government that would be created under the proposed federal Constitution. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote: “The tyranny of the legislatures is the most formidable dread at present, and will be for long years. That of the executive will come in it’s [sic] turn, but it will be a remote period.”
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Steel Seizure Case
In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that President Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel industry in the United States was illegal. Justice Robert Jackson’s concurring opinion in that case, often cited by legal scholars, emphasized the importance of limiting the power of the presidency. “With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law.”
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Harry Truman’s Seizure of the Steel Industry
In 1950, all of the major steel manufacturers in the United States went on strike in response to a conflict with the federal Wage Stabilization Board over wage increases the board proposed. President Harry Truman, who saw the strike as a serious threat to American success in the Korean War, ordered a seizure of the production facilities.
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King Milhous I
As President Richard Nixon attempted to withhold the Watergate tapes from Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworsky, Nixon’s attorney, James St. Clair, famously told the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit: “The President wants me to argue that he is as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.” When the case of United States v. Nixon reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the court ruled unanimously that “executive privilege” did not completely insulate the president’s communications from subpoena in a criminal case.
Edward Sorel (b. 1929). Milhous I: Lord of San Clemente, Duke of Key Biscayne, Captain of Watergate, 1974. India ink and watercolor on paper attached to illustration board. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (056)
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Presidential Immunity from Civil Suits
The president of the United States enjoys immunity from civil suits arising from events that take place during the time in office. Civil suits arising from events taking place prior to the president’s term present a separate question. In Jones v. Clinton, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber determined that President Clinton did not have immunity from a civil suit initiated against him by Arkansas state employee Paula Jones because the events that she alleged occurred before he took office. In a memorandum opinion, Judge Webber traced the legal limits of executive power back to Magna Carta and the English legal tradition that the king is subject to the law.
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President Cannot Defer Civil Suits
In Clinton v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that the president did not have immunity from civil suits arising from events alleged to have taken place before his term in office. They also rejected the claim that the president could defer litigation until after his presidency. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a concurring opinion in which he argued that while the president may not defer court proceedings, the courts must schedule proceedings in order to “avoid significant interference with the President’s ongoing discharge of his official responsibilities.” Cartoonist Herblock lampooned the Court’s decision in light of the impact the case had on President Clinton’s second term as president.
Herbert Block (Herblock) (1909–2001). “Same Wise Bunch that Decided the Paula Jones Case Wouldn’t Take Up Much of His Time,” August 5, 1998. Graphite, porous point pen, India ink, and opaque white over blue pencil underdrawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. A 1998 Herblock cartoon © The Herb Block Foundation (058)
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