It seems to me that every so often current events remind me of happenings that occurred many years ago, but are largely either forgotten or unknown to most folks. I suppose my being a history major in college kinda stokes my interest in seeing parallels between the past and the present, but there are a variety of sayings about how history repeats itself and I frequently find this to be true. Oh, the specific details may differ but the basic concepts are remarkable similar. And so let’s start with a bit of a history lesson I’ve put together from a variety of sources.
The Star Chamber Court (or more correctly, “The Court of the Star Chamber”) was an English court which held forth from the late 15th century to the mid-17th century to supplement the judicial activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. The Star Chamber Court was originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts would probably hesitate to convict them of their crimes. (By the way, the name “Star Chamber” had nothing to do with the shape or configuration of the courtroom; it referred to the gold stars that decorated the facility’s ceiling.)
It had it’s origins during the reign of Henry VII and initially functioned well in providing an avenue with both fairness and flexibility in ensuring equitable enforcement of laws against the English upper class – those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes. Indeed, the Star Chamber was regarded as one of the most just and efficient courts of the Tudor era. Sir Edward Coke once described Star Chamber as “The most honourable (sic) court (Our Parliament excepted) that is in the Christian world. Both in respect of the judges in the court and its honourable proceeding.” ( Edward P. Cheyney. The Court of Star Chamber. The American Historical Review, Vol. 18, No. 4 Jul., 1913).
Another function of the Court of the Star Chamber was to act like a court of equity, which could impose punishment for actions which were considered morally reprehensible but were not necessarily in violation of the letter of the law. With this great flexibility, it could punish defendants for any action the court felt should be unlawful, even though it was technically lawful. The result of this authority meant decisions by the Star Chamber could well be very arbitrary and subjective, and provided the means the court used later as an agent of oppression rather than justice.
One of the weapons of the Star Chamber was the “ex officio oath” whereby individuals were forced to swear to answer truthfully all questions asked. When confronted with aggressive, antagonistic questioning, the accused were often faced with three options: having to incriminate themselves; being charged with perjury if they gave unsatisfactory answers to their accusers; or being held in contempt of court if they gave no answer. The court could inflict any punishment short of death including: being sent to the pillory; being whipped or branded; having ears cut off; and, being subjected to ruinous fines. Thus the term “Star Chamber” became identified with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of power. These days legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary rulings and secretive proceedings are referred to as “Star Chambers” – and with good reason.
We are currently witnessing political theater in our nation’s capitol wherein anonymous accuser(s) who cannot be questioned are reporting hearsay evidence – evidence that is considered factual by the inquisitors who assisted the accuser(s) in preparing the complaint(s). Sessions are held in secret; transcripts of testimony are not available; subpoenas are issued only by the political party in charge of the hearings; and the chief inquisitor has repeatedly lied or misrepresented facts.
The Speaker of the House has repeatedly refused to formally authorize an impeachment inquiry by bringing the subject to a vote of the House – a procedure followed in previous impeachment cases. You see, to do so would grant rights now denied to the accused under the “inquisition by committee” process currently underway – and the list of such practices goes on and on paralleling other historical “Star Chamber” happenings.
You know, Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849–1916) wrote: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.” I figure he was right – we sure enough have a modern version of the Star Chamber Court. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor is a regular contributing columnist and area resident.