star chamber proceedings

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Star chamber proceeding is a phrase used in litigation to refer to an arbitrary and unfair adjudicatory proceeding. The term derives from the Star Chamber Courts of Medieval and early-modern England, which were at first used to try noblemen too powerful to be brought before common courts, but eventually became used to suppress anti-monarchical sentiment. Star Chamber Courts became seen as unfair, as they consisted of a committee of the king’s council, were conducted in secrecy, and especially during the reign of Charles I used torture to obtain confessions and suppress opposition. 

While Parliament abolished Star Chamber Courts in 1641, the phrase still invokes images of judicial arbitrariness and judges and litigants often employ the phrase to oppose a proceeding they see as unfair for rhetorical effect. Litigants may use the phrase to challenge proceedings against them. For example, in DS v. JH, a divorced husband challenged a divorce proceeding by the Scottish Court of Sessions, attacking the proceeding as a “star chamber.” In a 2018 District Court of Massachusetts case, Burnham v. Commonwealth, a pro se litigant sued state officials for conducting a criminal prosecution against him, which he characterized as “analogous to a 16th century star chamber proceeding[,] an arbitrary arm of royal power in the days of the Tudor and Stuart Kings.” Judges have also employed the term to question the fairness of legal proceedings. For example, in U.S. v Ju Toy (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court, in considering an immigration proceeding where Chinese immigrants landing in California had to potentially appear and give testimony in Washington D.C. to establish lawful admission to the U.S., questioned whether “if this be not a star-chamber proceeding of the most stringent sort, what more is necessary to make it one?”

[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]