Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.,
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., (Diego M. Radzinschi)

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. made a rare appearance on Monday before the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, hailing the importance of the Magna Carta as a foundation of “our fundamental freedoms” on the eve of its 800th birthday next year.

Roberts also called upon the nation’s lawyers to help promote “the public’s confidence in the integrity of our judicial system.” Citizens need to understand that the judiciary is the branch of government that is supposed to “rise above partisan political debates,” he said.

The chief justice’s appearance before the ABA’s governing body kicked off a commemoration of the British charter’s birthday that will include a meeting in London next year and re-dedication of a monument to the Magna Carta in Runnymede, first placed there by the ABA in 1957. The document was sealed by King John of England in 1215.

It was not a perfect document, however, Roberts told the audience. It was aimed at resolving a quarrel between “a venal king and selfish barons,” and it includes distasteful provisions including one that disparages Jews, he said.

But it is worth celebrating, Roberts said, because it planted seeds of modern-day concepts of due process, separation of powers, trial by jury and the rule of law. It helped lead the United States and other nations “down the path to constitutional democracy,” Roberts said.

Roberts also noted ironically that the British document turned into “a banner for rallying opposition to British rule,” with echoes in the Declaration of Independence.

It was Roberts’ first appearance before the ABA since he became chief justice in 2005, notwithstanding numerous invitations. A traveling exhibit on the Magna Carta, developed in coordination with the Law Library of Congress, is being unveiled at the Boston annual meeting and will be shown in several cities.

Decades ago, Supreme Court justices spoke regularly at the annual meetings and participated in the work of the association. With much fanfare, the late chief justice Warren Burger would give his annual report on the state of the judiciary at ABA meetings.

But justices’ appearances, especially by conservative members, tapered off in the late 1980s as the association increasingly became viewed as partisan and liberal. The ABA standing committee on the federal judiciary, which has long rated judicial nominees in advance of Senate confirmation hearings, gave Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork a split rating in 1987, with a minority finding him unqualified.

Reflecting conservative pique with the ABA, President George W. Bush in 2001 ended the tradition of informing the ABA committee of possible candidates for the bench before they were nominated. The conservative Federalist Society still issues an occasional publication containing criticism of the association, titled ABA Watch.