Anatomy of a Magna Carta Program

May/June 2015

By Justice J. Gary Hastings (Ret.)

Our Inn, the Benjamin Aranda III American Inn of Court in Redondo Beach, California, meets once a month, September through June. Pupillage groups and presentation dates are announced in August of each year and our pupillage group was assigned the October 2014 presentation. With the upcoming 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and the announced American Inns of Court Magna Carta Program Contest, my co-captain and I decided that Magna Carta would be a great program topic.

Before our initial pupillage team meeting, we requested that each team member do basic research on Magna Carta to prepare to discuss what we wanted to present. After a free-for-all discussion, we ultimately settled on a presentation that would address how Magna Carta affected us here in the United States. Then we turned to the format. We considered talking heads, a game show format, and skits; but ultimately settled on a take-off of the Sunday morning news program, Meet the Press. We called it "Meet the Past," with historical figures as guests to be interviewed by a moderator.

We decided that King John and Baron Fitzwalter, the leader of King John's opponents, were needed to provide historical background of the event resulting in Magna Carta. We agreed that Sir Edward Coke, who asserted Magna Carta in the 17th century for reform against the Stuart kings, was an important figure to show how the Great Charter lived on in England. John Adams, a Founding Father who referenced Magna Carta as foundation for basic rights claimed by the Colonies against King George and Parliament; and Abraham Lincoln, whose suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War challenged rights asserted in Magna Carta, were selected. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony would show how women's rights related back to provisions within the Great Charter; and Richard Nixon would demonstrate that excessive exercise of executive power is still with us today.

Team members volunteered to take on a role and did their own research on the person they were to represent and prepared questions for the moderator to ask. The moderator put together an overall script and a team member created the accompanying PowerPoint presentation. Over the next month, we edited the script and rehearsed the presentation. When the time came, the presentation went off without a hitch and feedback from members of the Inn was very positive.

We recorded the presentation, so our team met again several weeks later to watch the program, socialize, and discuss what we had learned. I also asked each member to respond to four questions about our project. Following are the questions and some of the responses I received.

1. Before we undertook our Magna Carta project, what was your understanding of Magna Carta and how did it affect your life or practice, if at all?

"Before the project, I did not understand that Magna Carta had any particular relevance to my life or the practice of law in the United States."

"I understood only that it was an early legal document signed at Runnymede, in Surrey; it had little effect, and no known conscious effect, on my life or practice, other than as an old document that signified an important historic attempt to limit the power of the king."

"Surprisingly, I had little specific understanding. I thought it was an important document which guaranteed rights to the nobility in England a long time ago. I thought it had some residual effect on our rights but was very fuzzy about how."

2. What did you learn about Magna Carta while studying your role that you didn't know before and which may help you in the future?

"My role as the moderator was to be familiar with the part each character played in the drafting, implementation, and continued execution of the principles in Magna Carta. I was very fortunate that each character took his or her role very seriously and conducted lots of research to fully understand his or her character and the role his or her character played in the drafting, implementation, and execution of Magna Carta. I learned that having a great team is extremely important in a role like mine and that I had a responsibility to allow each character to play his or her role in the manner in which he or she desired based on his or her perception of that character."

"While studying for my role as suffragette Susan B. Anthony, I learned about the historic connection between Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution; that Magna Carta was extremely influential to our American forefathers as they defined individual freedoms and liberties in the Constitution. I also learned that the women's emancipation movement in England viewed Magna Carta, which protected some property rights for women, as a critical link to the historic commitment of England to women's rights."

"I had generally heard of Blackstone's Commentary on the Laws of England, but I did not know about how Blackstone adopted Lord Coke's views, and how Lord Coke's views and writings influenced jurisprudential thought in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. I also did not understand how early the concept of the law as an evolving process originated, and how that idea has influenced jurisprudence, including but not limited to interpretation of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments and other jurisprudential values in the United States."

3. Will your understanding of Magna Carta affect your outlook on the American justice system and, if so, how?

"Yes, going forward I believe my understanding of Magna Carta is largely the same but more detailed in terms of how it functioned, in a sense, as the first germ of a set of principles that took root in England and crossed the Atlantic to inspire the great American experiment."

"The fact that our justice system has roots in such an ancient agreement between a King and the land barons who sacrificed so much to protect their rights; the fact that some of the most basic tenets of our justice system have continuously been attacked over the centuries, and have, throughout many centuries, required the vigilant protection of brave men and women; this awareness has given me a much deeper appreciation of the great, inestimable value that lies in that great document, the United States Constitution."

4. What did you enjoy about your participation in our presentation?

"First, and foremost, I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie and yes, the pleasure, of working with so many disciplined, smart, dedicated, resourceful, and enthusiastic people who were determined to do more than they were asked, in order to produce a result that made us all proud to have been a part."

"I enjoyed the fact everyone was involved. I have found that presentations are best when there is, first, a clear leadership chain of command; and second, everyone has a key role such that each is invested in the process. I also liked the concept of meeting past influential figures to address current concerns."

"I enjoyed getting to know everyone in our pupillage group. Because we met once a week for at least a month, we had an opportunity to get to know one another better."

"I like history. My participation in our presentation made me read a book about Magna Carta and actually read the document itself. From comments I have heard about our program, I think we imparted knowledge that was interesting and helpful to the members of our Inn in general. Also, it is always enjoyable working with the members of a pupillage group on a project. We really have an outstanding team. I have really enjoyed getting to know all of its members and interacting with them in the creation and presentation of the program."

"From the first meet and greet, to the 'performance,' I enjoyed every meeting. I felt engaged and an important part of the project. Creativity was encouraged, which made it even more fun to work with this group of people who all were so enthusiastic about the project."

Having been involved with the Aranda Inn since our founding in 1994, I can state this is one of the best experiences I have had as a member of a pupillage team. As noted in some of the answers, each member jumped with both feet into preparation and presentation of the program. Books about Magna Carta were purchased and read. Everyone consulted the Internet to learn about Magna Carta and the "guest" to be played. While learning about Magna Carta and its role in our justice system was exciting, the best part of the project was seeing the group come together as a whole and accomplish what we set out to do, professionally and with civility.

The program can be seen by logging on to the following link: A transcript of the voiceover at the beginning of the program can be found here.

Justice J. Gary Hastings is a retired justice of the California Court of Appeal and a founding member of the Benjamin Aranda III AIC in Redondo Beach, California.  He is also an adjunct professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, CA.

© 2015 JUSTICE J. GARY HASTINGS. This article was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of The Bencher, the flagship magazine of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.