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Opinion | Let’s celebrate the Magna Carta

Will Sellers

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In just a few weeks, fireworks will illuminate the night sky, parades will proceed down Main Streets, and the American people, even while social distancing, will pause to celebrate the Fourth of July, or Independence Day. And what event are we commemorating?

Not a military victory, not a birth or death, but a mere vote! That vote, once and for all, declared the American colonies free and independent from British domination. The many grounds justifying this vote are famously spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams wrote to Abagail in July 1776 predicting that the vote for independence would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” and “commemorated . . . by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty,” accompanied by “bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” How prescient of John Adams, and how appropriate that we Americans continue to celebrate our independence even 245 years after the vote for independence was announced.

The Declaration of Independence rightly holds a preeminent place in American history; yet, there is another, much older document from history worth celebrating, too. That document is Magna Carta, “the Great Charter,” signed this day [June 15] in the year 1215 A.D. by English barons and King John. It is not an exaggeration to say Magna Carta changed the concept of government forever.

In fact, never before had a ruler, in what was almost a bloodless coup, agreed to limitations on royal power. Magna Carta changed the dialog about the divine rights of kings and absolute power. We would do well to remember 805 years hence and reflect on what civilization has achieved by limiting the power of government and giving liberty to the governed.

Besides chartering a peace between some rebellious barons and the King of England, what did Magna Carta do? To be clear, it did not establish the concept of government by democracy; the Greeks had managed their affairs by majority vote well over a millennium earlier. Rather, Magna Carta planted the first seeds of constitutional government.

A constitutional government recognizes the truth that all citizens, including those in the government, are under the law. No one, not even the king, is above the law. In medieval times, this innovative concept challenged the regime that ceded absolute power in the monarchy, which was so prevalent in Europe and the rest of the world. Magna Carta placed the ruler under the law, forbidding him from dictating to his subjects above the limitations of the law.

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Magna Carta calls this supreme law the “law of the land.” This law is not necessarily written down. Rather, it reflects the rights and customs of the people populating the land. From this novel concept came what we call “the common law.” The common law is built not at once, but as any structure is built – brick by brick, case by case.

Each judgment handed down by the court sets a precedent which will inform the next judgment of the same kind. In societies embracing the common law, judges do not create the law of the land. Rather, they declare what it already is and apply it to each situation. And how do they know what the law is? They look to prior judgments, to immemorial custom, and to the fundamental rights of the people. In short, they look to practical experience, the tried and true, over the philosophical and speculative.

Magna Carta itself and the common law jurists and statesmen who followed conceived of rights in negative terms. Property rights, for example, are the natural corollaries of other peoples’ duties not to steal and destroy. Everyone besides the property owner has a duty not to trespass on the property owned by another, which means that owners have a right to the exclusive use and possession of their property.

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Fundamentally, rights are not invented by the government; they are inherent in what it means to be human. If the government has the power to create rights, then it can just as easily take them away. Magna Carta reflected fundamental rights and reduced them to writing, thus acting as a fence to clearly mark the boundaries between the government and the governed.

Magna Carta was viewed as so foundational to constitutional government, that it featured prominently in the early American colonies. For example, the first Massachusetts code of law explicitly cites Magna Carta as the source of the laws comprising that code. Additionally, South Carolina, when separating from North Carolina in the early 18th century, enacted a statute that incorporated the English common law, as established by Magna Carta, into its own set of laws. Alabama, like many other states, followed this trend. Furthermore, William Penn, of Pennsylvania fame, arranged for the first printing in America of Magna Carta, and the seal used by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress contained the image of a patriot with a sword in his right hand and a copy of Magna Carta in his left.

These historical tidbits evidence the importance Magna Carta held for our American ancestors, but the best evidence is our own written constitution. That document, like Magna Carta, places the law of the land above the government and recognizes certain individual rights, which the government must never infringe upon, much less violate.

If the government ever acts “above the law” by exceeding its enumerated powers granted by the Constitution, it ceases to be a proper government. Under constitutional government, laws have parameters in which to operate, but they cannot curtail rights clearly expressed in both our federal and state constitutions.

For today, its 805th anniversary, let us never forget the grandfather of our Constitution, Magna Carta. We should celebrate the concept of constitutional government it ushered into the world and the growing impact of its civilizing influence. Under Magna Carta and its offspring, the United States Constitution and the Alabama Constitution, we should always hold our own elected officials accountable to govern according to and under the “law of the land.” And, we must always remember that government exists not to create our rights, but to protect the rights we inherently possess.

When King John exceeded these rights, he set in motion a movement to constrain government by recognizing pre-existing rights and enumerating them lest future rulers forget their limitations. That is something well worth celebrating!

 

Will Sellers is an associate justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

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Opinion | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1

Chris Christie

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(STOCK PHOTO)

On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.

Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.

In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.

Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.

In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.

Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.

In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.

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According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.

And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.

The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protectingevery citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the every citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?

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Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.  

The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.

Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.

Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.

Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.

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Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution

Gerald Johnson and John Cochran

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The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.

A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.

The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.

While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.

Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.

Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.

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On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.

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Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color

Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt

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Auburn University's Student Center (VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.

This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.

Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.

These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.

We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.

Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.

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In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.

We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.

In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.

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Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.

Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”

Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.

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Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing

Paul DeMarco

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.

Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.

To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.

Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.

There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.

The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.

State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.

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We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.

In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.

The state is depending on it.

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