Star Chamber

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Star Chamber

An ancient high court of England, controlled by the monarch, which was abolished in 1641 by Parliament for abuses of power.

The English court of Star Chamber was created by King Henry VII in 1487 and was named for a room with stars painted on the ceiling in the royal palace of Westminster where the court sat. The Star Chamber was an instrument of the monarch and consisted of royal councillors and two royal judges. The jurisdiction of the court was based on the royal prerogative of administering justice in cases not remediable in the regular courts of law.

The Star Chamber originally assisted with some administrative matters, but by the 1530s it had become a pure court, relieving the king of the burden of hearing cases personally. It was a court of Equity, granting remedies unavailable in the common-law courts. As such, the court was an informal body that dispensed with "due process" as it was then understood.

During Henry VII's reign (1485–1509), about half the cases involved real property. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Star Chamber became a useful tool in dealing with cases involving members of the aristocracy who often defied the authority of the regular courts. It was during this period, moreover, that the court acquired criminal jurisdiction, hearing cases on issues concerning the security of the realm, such as Sedition, criminal libel, conspiracy, and forgery. Later, Fraud and the punishment of judges came within its jurisdiction.

The importance of the Star Chamber increased during the reigns of James I (1603–25) and Charles I (1625–49). Under Archbishop William Laud, the court became a tool of royal oppression, seeking out and punishing religious and political dissidents. In the 1630s Laud used the Star Chamber to persecute a group of Puritan leaders, most of whom came from the gentry, subjecting them to the pillory and Corporal Punishment. Though the Star Chamber could not mete out Capital Punishment, it inflicted everything short of death upon those found guilty. During this time the court met in secret, extracting evidence by torturing witnesses and handing out punishments that included mutilation, life imprisonment, and enormous fines. It turned equity's traditionally broad discretion into a complete disregard for the law. The Star Chamber sometimes acted on mere rumors in order to suppress opposition to the king.

The Star Chamber's Arbitrary use of power and the cruel punishments it inflicted produced a wave of reaction against it from Puritans, advocates of common-law courts, and others opposed to the reign of Charles I. In 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the court and made reparations to some of its victims.

The term star chamber has come to mean any lawless and oppressive tribunal, especially one that meets in secret. The constitutional concept of Due Process of Law is in part a reaction to the arbitrary use of judicial power displayed by the Star Chamber.

Further readings

Elton, G. R. 1974. Star Chamber Stories. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Guy, J. A. 1977. The Cardinal's Court: The Impact of Thomas Wolsey in Star Chamber. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Star Chamber

a tribunal abolished in 1641. It was effectively the king in council exercising criminal jurisdiction. It was inquisitorial, and torture is believed to have been used. It is now used more generally to denote an any arbitrary tribunal.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

STAR CHAMBER, Eng. law. A court which formerly had great jurisdiction and power, but which was abolished by stat. 16, C. I., c. 10, on account of its usurpations and great unpopularity. It consisted of several of the lords spiritual and temporal, being privy counsellors, together with two judges of the courts of common law, without the intervention of a jury. Their legal jurisdiction extended over riots, perjuries, misbehaviour of public officers, and other great misdemeanors. The judges afterwards assumed powers, and stretched those they possessed to the utmost bounds of legality. 4 Bl. Com. 264.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
References in periodicals archive ?
(38) But discussions surrounding the Bill of Rights tend to imply that the incorporation of the public-trial right was instead a fearful reaction to the dangers of Star Chamber practices.
Like its secular counterpart, seditious libel (discussed below), blasphemy was originally tried in Star Chamber, an extension of the king's council, which flourished as a judicial tribunal under the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
The ameliorative actions actually open to the English monarch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries derived from her (or his) ancient connection to the King's Bench, a common law court, and particularly to Star Chamber and Chancery, both courts of equity.
I knew that Toronto printer Scott Brockie had been hauled before the contemporary equivalent of the Star Chamber, a human rights tribunal, and convicted of turning down printing business from homosexual activists.
Three Supreme Court justices found that "the need to investigate whether there had been police misconduct constituted a justifiable government interest, given the risk that key evidence would have been lost if Martinez had died without the authorities ever hearing his side of the story." (23) Others, however, compared Officer Chavez's conduct to "the kind of custodial interrogation that was once employed by the Star Chamber [and] by the Germans of the 1930s and early 1940s." (24)
In a scene right out of the movie The Star Chamber, a group of powerful religious-right leaders on May 6 grilled Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, about a meeting he'd had with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group, in March.
The major central law courts--Common Pleas, King's Bench, Chancery, Wards, Star Chamber, and Requests--enveloped it while in Westminster Hall booksellers and hawkers plied their trade.
Just as the Bush Administration is announcing that "defending our way of life" means supporting these star chamber court proceedings, curtailing civil liberties, and letting law enforcement listen in on conversations between lawyers and their clients, journalists seem to have given up their critical stance and decided that being a P.R.
He takes particular issue with Kevin Sharpe's revisionist view that Charles was not a tyrant, that his financial exactions were not oppressive, and that Star Chamber was a popular court.
Even aside from the atrocious proceedings of the Star Chamber and High Commission, the state trials offer little more than a procession of "browbeating judges, packed juries, lying witnesses, clamorous spectators." Sir Edward Coke?
From the county court all the way up to the dreaded Star Chamber, law was an ever-present reality.