Leading Legal Minds Call for a Digital Bill of Rights

Federal inmates are not the only ones fighting for the right to confide in a lawyer.

Earlier this month, at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in Boston, several leaders of national and international bar associations called for stronger coordination among lawyers to combat a growing sense of governmental surveillance attacks on the attorney-client privilege.

The leaders, whose panel was called Wiretapping of Attorney-Client Conversations: How Can Professional Secrecy be Protected?, discussed recent evidence of governmental wiretapping of law firms, including American law firms, as we’ve covered here before.

One of the panelists called for a “digital Magna Carta” that would serve as a “digital bill of rights in each country.” Apparently, that idea has also been put forth by the man who’s credited with inventing the World Wide Web. Another panelist described the attorney-client privilege as a “first defense against tyranny,” and another warned that its erosion threatens the rule of law and puts the underpinnings of democracy at stake.

The reference to a digital Magna Carta was especially apropos because the ABA’s Annual Meeting also kicked off its year-long commemoration of the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. From November 6, 2014 through January 19, 2015, the Library of Congress will host one of the four surviving original copies of the document, and a traveling exhibit will tour the country through 2015 and beyond. The ABA’s own festivities will culminate on June 11-14, 2015 in London and Runnymede, where the original parchment was sealed on June 15, 1215.

To help launch the year-long commemoration, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, delivered an address to the ABA’s House of Delegates on August 11 in which he, too, called on lawyers to help defend the core values and principles that Magna Carta has come to symbolize as it’s been sewn into the fabric of our Constitution.

You can view a video of Justice Roberts’s speech here. You can follow the ABA’s further coverage of the privilege issue here. And you can find a translation of the text of Magna Carta from the original Latin here. Below are a few notable provisions from the document that came to stand for the notion that no one, not even the King, is above the law.

  • No man shall be forced to perform more service for a knight’s fee, or other free holding of land, than is due from it.
  • No sheriff, royal official, or other person shall take horses or carts for transport from any free man, without his consent.
  • No constable or other royal official shall take corn or other movable goods from any man without immediate payment, unless the seller voluntarily offers postponement of this.
  • For a trivial offence [sic], a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood.
  • In future no official shall place a man on trial upon his own supported statement, without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.
  • No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement [sic] of his equals or by the law of the land.

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