Don’t miss Scott Horton’s Resurrecting the Star Chamber in Harper’s.
When the Founding Fathers looked for a model that reflected the abuses they objected to—in short what they intended to forbid by their new Constitution and Bill of Rights—they turned to an English institution, the Court of Star Chamber. It was a state security court with ancient roots which flourished under the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. The Star Chamber court operated in secrecy, was not bothered by the picky evidentiary rules that emerged in other courts, and did not believe that those appearing before it on state security charges had many rights—certainly not the right to counsel, nor even the right to conduct a defense. It relied very heavily on torture to extract the evidence it sought to convict, usually a confession—though rarely, of course, a confession with any validity, since the application of the rack would quickly get the subject to say whatever was desired, truthful or not.
Horton goes on to describe the cases of Ali al-Timimi, an Islamic scholar in Northern Virginia sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for inciting his followers to commit acts of terrorism, and Omar Khadr, imprisoned at the age of 16 five years ago for throwing a grenade in Afghanistan. The secrecy with which the United States government has acted fits the Star Chamber profile neatly.
Current administration tough guys and tough guy wannabes running for president — especially those who would double and double-and-raise-you-double Gitmo — should look into the latter history of the Star Chamber. It provides a cautionary tale.
The Star Chamber was used with tyrannical abandon by King Charles I, who also enjoyed reigning without a pesky parliament at all from 1629 to 1640. Short of funds, Charles recalled parliament in 1640, and in 1641 parliament abolished the Star Chamber. Shortly afterward, the first of two British civil wars of the 1640’s followed. The second war culminated in the execution of Charles I in 1649.