Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. extolled the Magna Carta in a speech Monday in Boston, saying the 800-year-old charter is the foundation for the principles of freedom and equality in today's legal system.
"The events of 800 years ago marked the commencement of a major undertaking in human history," Roberts said before a crowd of hundreds at an American Bar Association meeting. "We mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta because it laid the foundation for the ascent of liberty."
The Magna Carta was signed in England in 1215. Roberts provided a history lesson for most of his address, giving necessary background on a document most Americans have not thought about since their school days.
He told the story of how barons — acting not for the greater good, but in their own self-interest — created the charter to secure their freedoms and restrict the powers of King John.
One of four remaining original copies of the document is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through the end of the month.
The American Bar Association is commencing a yearlong commemoration of the charter for its 800th anniversary. Roberts said it will include a restoration and rededication of a Magna Carta monument in Runnymede, the meadow in England where the charter was first sealed centuries ago.
"I and other members of the judiciary will be following those events closely," Roberts said.
Preserving hallmarks of the charter, including early formations of due process and separation of powers, is still a focus for the nation's highest jurists, he said.
The chief justice, who was appointed to lead the Supreme Court in 2005, said the Magna Carta helped set forth a trio of important principles: the concept of constitutional democracy, the notion that law could unify society in times of crisis, and the idea of independence from tyrannical rule, which later led to the American Revolution.
Principles of the charter are especially relevant today, when partisan fighting sometimes evokes the feudal squabbling of King John and the barons. Jurists can channel its influence to "bolster public confidence" with fair, independent judgment, he said.
"When we talk about Magna Carta today, we are not celebrating antiquated relics of a time long past," Roberts said. "Instead we are referring to a small collection of provisions that express kernels of transcendent significance."