TBA Law Blog


Posted by: Jonathan Steen on May 1, 2015

Journal Issue Date: May 2015

Journal Name: May 2015 - Vol. 51, No. 5

“Did you know that there are actually less than 24 hours in a day?” asked my son William. “What?” I replied. “Yeah, there are really only 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds in a day,” he answered. “That doesn’t sound right — I’m not sure that’s really true. Is that one of those weird facts you found on the Internet?” I challenged skeptically.

“No,” he said, grinning, “I learned it in school.”

As it turns out, my sixth-grade son, the one who loves weird facts and loves sharing them with anyone who will listen even more, was right. A sidereal day, measured by the earth’s rotation relative to distant stars, is about 4 minutes shorter than a solar day, measured by the earth’s rotation relative to the sun. William was indeed correct about a fact that I will now probably never forget. I often feel like I don't have enough time in the day and now I know why. I must be operating on sidereal time instead of solar time! In reality, we all operate on a solar day and are not somehow mysteriously missing 40 minutes of time every 10 days. The solar day by which we all keep time averages 86,400 seconds, which means that this year’s Law Day will last for a full 24 hours.

Law Day, first established by President Dwight Eisenhower on May 1, 1958, honors the role of law in the creation of the United States of America. Congress passed a joint resolution three years later, designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day. Since then, we celebrate our nation’s commitment to the rule of law every May 1. Law Day asks each of us to reflect on our rights as citizens laid out in the fundamental documents of our democracy: the Declaration of Independence and the federal Constitution. It is only fitting that this year’s Law Day theme, “Magna Carta: Symbol of Freedom under Law,” celebrates the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and honors the precursor to the rights and freedoms we hold dear under our Constitution today.

Perhaps Magna Carta’s most enduring legacy is the idea that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law. Magna Carta also served as an inspiration for many basic rights we enjoy today, including due process, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and the right to travel. But Magna Carta is 800 years old, after all, so I collaborated with my son to see if we couldn’t bring a fresher approach to celebrating its anniversary. So for all of you who love weird facts or know someone who loves weird facts, here are some about Magna Carta to enjoy and share.

It’s Magna Carta, not “the” Magna Carta. Magna Carta is Latin for Great Charter. In fact it was written in medieval Latin. In Latin, there are no exact equivalents for articles such as “an” or “the,” so it is simply referred to in British usage as Magna Carta. Of course, just as distinguishing sidereal days from solar days is a matter of perspective, it is perfectly acceptable in American usage to call it “the” Magna Carta.

Magna Carta was valid for just 10 weeks. King John issued the charter as a way of solving the political crisis he faced when his barons rebelled against him and captured London because he had demanded heavy taxes to fund his unsuccessful wars in France. King John met the barons at Runnymede, a neutral site just west of London, in June 1215 and sealed the document intended as a peace treaty. By August 1215, King John had Pope Innocent III annul Magna Carta, declaring it null and void and having been sealed under duress. At the same time, the barons didn’t surrender London. Although King John and the barons did not honor the agreement, the ideas set out in Magna Carta became lasting principles of liberty to the English. Three of the clauses are still in force as English law: one defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third paved the way for the right to due process. The ideas of Magna Carta also influenced and continue to influence the constitutions and development of other countries.

King John is often portrayed as the villain in the story of Robin Hood.

There are four surviving copies of Magna Carta. Many copies of the 1215 document were sent out to bishops and sheriffs across the country, but the exact number is unknown. Of the four surviving copies, one copy belongs to Lincoln Cathedral, one is owned by Salisbury Cathedral, and two by the British library.

Magna Carta consists of approximately 3,600 words written with vegetable-based ink on dried sheepskin parchment. The scribes who produced the single page document abbreviated words to save space on the parchment.

An original version of Magna Carta was kept under guard at Fort Knox during World War II. At the beginning of World War II, Lincoln Cathedral’s original Magna Carta was on display in the United States. The cathedral’s Magna Carta spent the war under guard at Fort Knox, and was returned to England after the war.

In 2007, a 1297 copy of Magna Carta sold at auction for $21.3 million. Magna Carta was ratified and reissued with each monarch who succeeded King John. The English parliament enacted it as law in 1297 when it was reissued by King Edward I. The 1297 copy of Magna Carta purchased at the 2007 auction by lawyer David Rubenstein is the centerpiece of the “Records of Rights” exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and is the only authentic copy of Magna Carta permanently held in the U.S.

This year, when you think about Law Day, remember the Great Charter, Magna Carta, drafted 800 years ago. Although Magna Carta failed its original intended purpose, the lasting effect of its principals as a foundation for the rule of law is priceless. Just ask William.


Jonathan O. Steen Tennessee Bar Association President JONATHAN O. STEEN is a civil trial lawyer with Redding, Steen & Staton PC in Jackson. He is a past president of the TBA Young Lawyers Division. Any mistakes in this column, he points out, are solely his and not William’s.