LOC | Justice Sonia Sotomayor Explains the Magna Carta to 6th Graders
Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a special visit to the Young Readers Center to read a book and talk about Magna Carta to 6th grade students from the School Without Walls at Francis Stevens in Washington, D.C. As part of a career/story time collaboration with EverybodyWins!DC, the students and the Justice toured the Lincoln Magna Carta exhibit at the Library of Congress. The program continued in the Young Readers Center, where the Justice joined the students for a conversation about her own life, career, and role at the Supreme Court, pointing out the relationship of Magna Carta to the U.S. Constitution.
Speaker Biography: Justice Sonia Sotomayor earned a B.A. from Princeton University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal. She served as Assistant District Attorney in New York County, then litigated international commercial matters in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt. President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York. She served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and was nominated as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2009.
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But after a trial, the party who loses that trial has two more opportunities to try to win. They can take that loss and appeal it. What that–what appeal means is to ask. I appeal for your interest in what I’m saying, okay? I’m asking you to do something. And the losing party is asking the appeals court–sometimes it’s called Appellate Court–to tell them or to look at the case and see if an error was committed, a legal mistake was made.
Most of the cases end there. But there’s still one more opportunity to appeal. And that’s to a supreme court. It’s the last court of the land. And what the United States Supreme Court does is, it answers the question of whether any act was constitutional or not. Was it something that could be done, or not done?
We also look at laws and say, this is what Congress intended. This is what it means. But we’re the last court. We are nine Justices. We’re nominated by the President. And we’re confirmed by the Senate. That means the Senate can say yes or no to us. There’s a hearing. And the Senate gets to ask us questions.
But the part that most people don’t know is that federal judges, and especially Supreme Court justices, can be there for life. So I actually have a job to do until the day I die. Does that mean I have to stay there? No. But lots of justices stay a very, very long time. Because we are asked–answering the most important legal questions of the nation. We don’t hear that many cases a year. We hear anywhere from 70 to 80 cases a year. And there’s thousands and thousands and thousands of cases. So what we’re hearing is the most important.
So why did they ask me to come here to talk to you today? I think in part because I’m a little bit like all of you. Because I probably came very close to the same background you did. My parents migrated here from Puerto Rico in the 1940s. My mother came as a WAC in the Army. My dad came over with his family. They met here, got married, and had me and my brother. And we grew up in a housing project, a public housing project. I suspect some of you know what that is. We were not rich, we were very poor. And we struggled a lot. Our neighborhoods were filled with a lot of, lot of crime. And we had illness and problems in our family. My dad drank a lot. And he ended up dying very young at 42 from a heart attack. And on top of it I got diabetes when I was 7. And I had to take insulin shots. And so I think, like for many of you, my life was just not that easy. And my family struggled a lot. And so how did I get from there to here?
I was just asked if I was rich. Well, I’m certainly much, much, much more comfortable than my mother or anybody in my family ever was. And how did I do it? Believe it or not, by studying. And how did I learn to love to study? When my dad died, my mom got really depressed. And our house was very, very quiet. For about a year. And I was afraid to leave the house, because I didn’t really know what she was going to do. I was a little scared. What I did for entertainment was find books. I went to the public library. And I got as many books as I could, as often as I could. And I would spend hours reading. And those hours of reading let me learn about the beauty of books. You see, books and words open up the world to you. You can read books on science fiction, and learn about the imagination. You can read books about cultures all over the world. And they can paint pictures for your mind. And it also gives you–reading–an opportunity to make yourself a more interesting person. Who are the people that you tend to like the most? Among your friends? Ones who tell a little bit of a joke. The ones who talk about interesting things. How do you talk about interesting things? You’ve got to learn about them. And TV can only show you a little bit. Books show you more. Because they engage your mind. And it’s through very hard studying, I got to the top of my school. And from there I went to better schools. And I got really good jobs.
The key to success is always hard work. And study. Now, there’s one part of the story I forgot to tell you. Which is, when I got to college I realized that I didn’t really know how to write English very well. Because, you see, in my house they only spoke Spanish. And so when I was writing, I was thinking in Spanish and translating the Spanish to English. And that’s very awkward. Because the structure of Spanish is a little bit different than the structure of English. And I found a teacher in college who helped me learn how to write English. Because writing the word is very, very powerful. And so that will open the doors for me to be successful. Learning how to argue standing up. But how to argue better in my writing. Because that’s what the Magna Carta did. The written word has lasted centuries. Eight hundred years. There’s not that many things that we can talk about that have influenced people and history more than words.
Think of the Bible. How do we know the story of–told in the Bible, except through the Bible, the written word? And the Magna Carta, it has influenced the development of laws and constitutions for 800 years. It’s a pretty important thing to be able to do. And so your words, if you know how to present them in a persuasive way, can have the same impact. Now, I’m going to read a little bit about this beautiful book that you’re going to get. At the end. And I’m going to read only parts of it. So I hope you’ll go back and look at it, okay? But I’m also going to have given to you a copy of the United States Constitution. And your teachers are going to love me. But you’re not. I hope you’ll read the book. And then you’ll read the Constitution with a pen and pencil in your hand. And circle all the parts of the Constitution that have the ideas of the Magna Carta. And you’re going to realize that the Magna Carta was really the inspiration for the Constitution. It started the founding fathers, the people who wrote the Constitution, into thinking about how they wanted to be governed. And so that’s what the Magna Carta is about.
When you’re studying history, there are two kinds of things to look at. One, you look at primary sources. What are primary sources? They are the things that were written at the time. Like the Magna Carta. It was written in 1215. And we’re looking at exactly what was said in that document.
There are secondary sources, which are sources that people who didn’t write anything, they’re looking at the primarily sources, they’re thinking about them. And they’re going to add something to them. Some thought to what they mean. That’s what you do to look at history. You look at what the primary sources were. And then you look at people who were writing about those primary sources are saying, and what they’re thinking.
The Magna Carta is probably the most ancient primary source in the world. What I mean by that is, it’s the oldest written source we have. And it was, as you know, written in England. The Magna Carta said that even the kind was not above the law. And that he must respect the rights of others. You’ve already learned that before that Magna Carta, the king did what he wanted. When he wanted to raise taxes, he did. When he wanted to put somebody in jail, he did. They didn’t have to do anything wrong, he just felt like it. And that’s what he did.
Well, the Magna Carta changed that. It was an agreement between England’s King, John, and wealthy landowners called barons. It’s important for you to understand that not everybody in England at the time had rights. It was only the wealthy that had rights. So it wasn’t really the Magna Carta that set the country on equality of rights. It was–that was an evolution. And a lot of it was the American system. But the rights secured in the Magna Carta applied to everybody.
In the nine to 1200s, people feared that powerful kinds would become tyrants. Do you know what “tyrants” means? Dictators. It’s what your parents do when they tell you, you’ve got to do this and you say why? And they say, “Because I said so.” Well, that’s what tyrants do. You’ve got to do this because I say so. And they could say anything they wanted.
The Magna Carta proclaims that even the king had to follow the law. It also established basic rights that people could expect for themselves. It was the first time that an English king had been forced to proclaim liberties for people under his rule. It took more than the writing of the Magna Carta in 1215 to ensure the freedoms of all people. The Magna Carta document had to be signed by different kings, because there was more than one, before the freedoms listed in it were considered part of the law of the land. Eventually, the freedoms extended beyond wealthy barons to everyday people.
The principles of the Magna Carta crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the earliest English colonies. You know what colonies are, right? They’re what are states today. But they were called colonies. Because they didn’t have equal rights with the people in England. The colonies couldn’t really rule themselves. England ruled them. And that’s why they were called colonies. But those colonies, the original 13, became the original states of the United States. These people had come to understand their basic rights under the Magna Carta in England. When they became colonists and had their rights violated by England, this led to the Revolutionary War in 1775 through 1783. The Magna Carta was written hundreds of years before the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
But the writers of these newer documents used ideas from the Magna Carta. Its ideas about freedom helped shape the law and government of the United States. I’m trying to skip a lot so I don’t bore you too much.
A series of events led to the Magna Carta. More than one hundred years before it was signed, King Henry the First was crowned King of England in 1100. He proclaimed some freedoms in a document called the Charter of Liberties. This charter was issued to prevent the abuses that earlier kings had made against the Catholic Church and nobles. Under earlier kings, when a baron died, his family had to buy the family’s land again from the king. Church property had to be paid for again when a bishop died. If a daughter of a baron wanted to marry, the father had to pay the king. These payments raised money for the king. But the barons, knights, and Catholic Church resented having to pay them. King Henry the First improved the law and living conditions of the English people. But he did not obey the terms of the Charter of Liberties. He continued to charge people high taxes. And to take land when he wanted it. Barons had no legal protection for their property. When King Henry the First died, war erupted over who would be king. England was in a lawless state for years. In 1154, a grandson of Henry the First was crowned king, Henry II. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was from a section of France that was in Henry II’s kingdom. Henry II and Eleanor grew up in France and lived there as much as they lived in England. Henry II expanded the power of the royal government. Some of his changed helped the nobles. For example, he established property rights. He also gave more power to the judges who decided cases of law. His system led nobles to see the law and the court system as something that protected their property and made them stronger. King Henry II had a battle with the Catholic Church over whether or not churchmen had to obey the king and the law. King Henry II, in an angry mood, said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent, trouble causing priest?” Four knights heard his words and took action. They went to Canterbury Cathedral and killed Thomas Becket.
Thomas Becket is considered a martyr by many. And he’s the first person we know of who died in such a public way. Well, that’s not true. There were some early apostles who did as well. But in the modern times, those modern times, who died publicly because of his faith. And there’s a movie about it. So if you ever see it advertised on television, take some time and watch it.
Thomas Becket, the highest ranking official in the Catholic Church in England, was killed as a result of his belief.
Starting in 1095, the Pope of the Catholic Church had asked knights to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. These efforts were called The Crusades. Groups of Christian knights traveled to Jerusalem in Israel. And fought in bloody battles for the Catholic Church. It wasn’t Israel then. That didn’t happen until after World War II. But it was called Jerusalem at the time. At the time of the Crusades, the Catholic Church was the most powerful organization in Europe. The influence of the Pope reached across country lines. And his word was considered law in most of Europe. His law even overruled the law of the king in most nations.
Richard the Lionhearted, when King Henry II died in 1189, his third son, Richard, was crowned King of England. He declared his intention to go on a crusade. He swore to stop his sinful ways. And became a soldier for the Pope. Richard was already called Richard the Lionhearted for his military skills. While King Richard the First was on a crusade, his brother John tried to become king. Richard forgave him for his rebellion.
But while fighting in France, Richard was struck by an arrow and died from the wound.
After King Richard the First died, John was the only surviving son of King Henry the II and Eleanor. He was known as John Lackland. Because he was not expected to inherit much land. He wasn’t going to get much land when his father died. He was also called John Softsword, because he was not often victorious in battle. John was crowned King of England on April 6, 1199. King John had some good qualities. He promised to accept the ideas of property rights as established under Henry the II. He increased the power of the royal courts. And tried to improve the system of laws in the country. But John was famous for his temper. When he was angry with barons, he would demand the taxes they owed. If they did not pay, King John took their castles. He raised the fees paid when a person married, inherited land, got a position as a sheriff or government official, or became a widow. A widow is a woman whose husband has died. Or a man whose wife has died.
Like the king before him, John believed that he ruled because God made him the king. In his mind, this gave him all power over the barons and the people. As he set higher taxes and made more rules for the barons to obey, they began to think about rebelling against him. Whenever he heard about a possible rebellion, he threw those he suspected into prison. This would lead to many problems throughout his time as king. And would eventually lead to the Magna Carta.
King John wanted to regain land he had lost in France. He thought this would bring more money to England. To raise more money for a war against France, he began to tax the people even more. He decided he needed the Pope’s approval to do this. So he submitted to the Pope’s authority. He also agreed to send money to the church every year. From then on, the Pope supported John.
King John at first had some victories in France. But he was eventually defeated, and had to pay more money to the French. The loss of money left the king with few resources. So King John raised taxes again. The barons were angry with the king’s treatment of them. In November, 1214, many of them pretended to meet for religious purposes. But instead they discussed what to do about King John. They were planning to rebel.
In early 1215, a group of barons appeared before King John. They insisted that he restore their rights, as he had promised to do when he was crowned. King John was furious. But he said he would let them know his answer just after Easter. For the next few months, both the king and the barons were preparing their castles for war. And gathering supplies. They knew they might be fighting soon. Battles between the king and the barons began. But in early June 1215, King John agreed to meet with the barons in Runnymede, a meadow about halfway between London and Windsor Castle. Where King John often lived. After several days of discussion, on June 5, John agreed to the barons’ demands.
How many articles are in the Magna Carta? Do you remember?
Now, the Magna Carta was meant to bring peace between the King John and the barons. But John did not want to give up so much power. So within a few months, he acted against it terms. Both sides returned to war. The rebel barons had taken over an important stronghold called Rochester Castle. King John surrounded and attacked Rochester Castle. And stayed there for seven weeks. He finally captured the fortress in November. The barons also attacked castles owned by King John.
Then King John led his knights to fight against an invasion by the French king. But many of the barons refused to fight with him. In October of 1216, King John became ill and died. Before his death, he named his young son. He would be known as King Henry the III.
You know, they used a lot of the same names. King Henry the III became king–you heard about this–when he was 9 years old. An advisor carried out the business of the kingdom until Henry was old enough to make decisions himself. In 1225, Henry the III re-confirmed the Magna Carta. He became full King in 1234. So how old was he when he re-affirmed the Magna Carta? He was only 9 years old in 1216. And he re-affirmed it in 1225. So…
Now, one of the clauses of the Magna Carta created a group of important people who would help run the kingdom. These people would be chosen by the barons. This was an important step in the establishment of the English Parliament. Which is at the heart of lawmaking today. Now, America didn’t copy the English Parliament model. What it did instead was to create two Houses for its legislature. For the people who are going to help run the country. It created the Senate. And that was a little bit like the barons. It was two people from each state. And they made up the Senate. When the country became 50 states, we now have a hundred senators. But at the time when the Constitution was first written, there were 3 colonies. And so there were 26 senators. To ensure that everybody had representation and a chance to govern, our forefathers created the House of Representatives. And the House of Representatives has one representative from every district in the country. And there’s a lot of districts. So we have over 400 and I think 35, House of Representatives members. And they can be, and usually are, from any, any background. So we took some of the ideas of the Magna Carta. But we changed them a bit to suit the American ideal.
The Magna Carta did not ensure the rights of the common English people, however. Rather, the terms proclaimed the rights of the wealthy barons. But as time went on, the ideas became popular with common people too. Ordinary people came to believe that they deserved these rights. And they began to believe them because of the writings, the words of one man–Edward Coke. He helped write the Petition of Right. Which established legal principles based on the Magna Carta. Among these principles were the idea that only Parliament could impose taxes on ordinary people. He also argued that a person had the right–any person–to know what crime he was charged with. He campaigned and wrote, so that people would understand these rights and why they were important. And so people campaigned for their rights as well.
Now, I said I was going to skip all of the Provisions. But at the same time that Edward Coke was writing about the Magna Carta in England, the American colonies began to develop. People left to establish communities in North America for a variety of reasons. Such as freedom to practice their religion freely. The colonies were set up under the leadership of the King and the English Parliament. Each colony had its own set of laws listed in Charters for the King to sign. Edward Coke wrote most of the Virginia Charter for the colony of Virginia. He wrote that the colonies would have the liberties, franchises, and immunities of English citizens. But remember, it was the King who signed the Charter.
Similarly, the Charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colonies stated that people would have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects. Many of these words matched almost exactly the words of the Magna Carta. In 1687, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania Colony, published the pamphlet called, “The Excellent Privilege of Liberty and Property.” Being the birthright of the free-born subject of England. In it, he included a copy of the Magna Carta. Penn’s plan of government for the colony included freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, a jury system, and amendments–the ability to change laws. These were all ideas from the Magna Carta. So how did the Revolutionary War start? You’ve heard of the Boston Tea Party?
I guess there are some politicians who should remember that.
Now, because of that, that’s how the war started. In 1774, colonial leader Thomas Jefferson wrote that Parliament had taken away rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all. The American colonists increasingly believed they were being denied their rights as free Englishmen. Rights guaranteed by the Magna Carta.
In April 1775, American colonists and British troops exchanged fire in the town of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts colony. The Revolutionary War had begun. As the colonists prepared for independence, a man named George Mason wrote a document called, “The Virginia Declaration of Rights.” In this document, he proposed that all men are by nature equally free and independent. He said that the government is for the benefit of the people. And the real power belongs to the people. He added that people have freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and a right to trial by jury. Many of these ideas found their inspiration in the Magna Carta.
Now I have to stop here. Only because this history makes it sound as if we really understood that all men were entitled to freedom. But just like the Magna Carta, which was only for the barons, the Declaration of Rights was only for people who were not slaves.
So that Black people, most of whom were slaves, were not covered by the Declaration of Rights. And neither was the initial Constitution that we wrote. So what happened? What happened is what happened to the Magna Carta. Over time, people began to understand the injustice of what they were doing. And they began, just like the Magna Carta did, to begin fighting for that equality. And it was the court in a first case–well, the Civil War was fought for the liberation of slaves. But even with the liberation of slaves in American history, African-American people did not have the same rights as others. So when was that equality under law created?
Well, it was created in the Constitution after the Civil Rights. But unfortunately, the courts didn’t really fully appreciate what that meant. And they weren’t really giving equal rights to all people. It wasn’t until 1954, a month before I was born, that the courts in a famous, famous case that you’ll hear throughout your life called “Brown versus Board of Education.” In that case–do you know that case?
In 1776, representatives from the colonies met at an event called the Continental Congress. They discussed the situation between the American colonies and England. The colonists decided it was time to stand up for their rights. A committee of five men was chosen to write a document. Thomas Jefferson composed most of it, most of what would become known as The Declaration of Independence. Perhaps one of the most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights–unalienable rights, impossible to take away rights–that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Now, I am ashamed to say, I don’t remember how many signed. But I’m willing to get it was anywhere from 13 to 26. Because there was probably one or two representatives from each of the colonies. The British army surrendered to the colonists at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. The United States would now be a free and independent country. In 1787, Colonial leaders met to write the U.S. Constitution. This focused on how the new government would be run. Like the Magna Carta, this would be the supreme law of the land. The beginning words of the Constitution are, “We the people of the United States.” In essence, the Constitution gives the power to make laws to the people.
Many Americans agree about the importance of the Constitution. But they are concerned that it did not protect individual rights. Now that they had their own country, they did not want the new government powerful enough to take away their rights. To solve this problem, many people argued in favor of adding a Bill of Rights. This would protect the rights of individuals, such as the freedom of religion, speech, and a fair trial. It would also prevent the leader from becoming too powerful. In 1791, the Bill of Rights became law.
Now, you’ve heard there are four original Charters. You’ve seen one today. You’ve heard a little bit of the history of it coming to the United States at various times. It was here even during World War II. There was another copy made in 1297 by King Edward the First, who was forced to once again lay out the terms of the Magna Carta. A copy of this document is on loan on the National Archives in Washington, DC. A man named David Rubinstein bought it in 2007 for $21.3 million. Can you imagine one old piece of paper being worth that much money? He wanted–Mr. Rubinstein–for the document to be seen by all U.S. citizens.
Other countries such as Australia and Canada have based their constitutions on the Magna Carta. Australia has a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta preserved and displayed in its parliament. The Magna Carta established that all people, even kings, are not above the law. And that people have rights that cannot be taken away. Even though the Magna Carta was focused on the rights of the barons and not the common people. Today people around the world are willing to fight for their rights. Because of the inspiration of the Magna Carta, documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution guarantee rights for citizens of the U.S. The power of this 800-year-old document continues to be felt today.
So, words can teach you history. [Applause]
You know, you understand why the Magna Carta was important. Because the king was a tyrant. And you understand why our founding fathers created the Constitution. Because they wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be another king. And that certain individual rights would be protected. So what are these documents? They’re agreements. They’re agreements, the first one between the king and the barons. And on the Constitution, it’s an agreement among the states. But it was an agreement by the people. By the people, for the people. To create a system that would protect the people. Now you ask, okay, they created this system of government. They’ve given me some individual rights. But really, why are these laws important? Yes, we want to stop fights. We want to stop taxation without approval. We want to have fair trials. But why do we have so many laws? You know, because there’s a whole lot of laws out there. Do you know why? Go ahead.
The minute you leave your house and you come to a corner, you stop on red, you go on green. Why do we have that law? Because everybody wants to get to where they’re going safely. If all of you did what you wanted, which was just to go headlong straight without ever stopping, you might or might not get to where you’re going. Because somebody else could hit you. So you give up your freedom to do what you want to do. So that all of your interests, all of our interests, can work together. That’s what the law is to me. It’s a way of helping people in their relationships with one another. And that’s what good lawyers and judges do. Which is to help people figure out how best to make their relationships work under the law. And it provides for a way for people to solve their problems without fighting wars.
Now I’m going to raise a few questions. Were you getting up to–I think they thought you were stopping us. So, alright. Now I’ll let you ask a question.
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