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The Secret Courts of the United States

W. Scott Cole

Posted on October 25, 2018 00:30

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Do you remember the Star Chamber Courts from your history lessons? If you do, you should ask yourself why the United States didn’t learn from the lessons of history. Why, when the United States Constitution requires the courts of this land to be open to the public, does the Federal Government and state judicial systems have secret courts? Are they trying to hide something? Are the abuses of the Star Chamber being repeated unknown to all of us?

For those of you who need a refresher course, the Star Chamber Courts existed in England from 1487 to 1641. It evolved from meetings of the King’s Royal Council and was named for the star pattern painted on the ceiling of the room meetings were held in.

It eventually became a political weapon used to silence the opponents of Henry VIII. It could not impose a death sentence, but it could and did order imprisonment and torture to those who came before it. By the time of Charles I, it became synonymous with abuse and misuse of power. Its proceedings were secret, the punishments were speedy and severe, and there was no appeal. Today, its name is used to denote arbitrary, secretive proceedings used against liberty and personal rights.

Maybe we haven’t reached the point of abusing power yet, but maybe we have. How can we tell? The proceedings of the secret courts are, well, secret. The premise behind secret courts is that some decisions cannot be made in public without jeopardizing a critical government interest, or to protect witnesses, or in some cases, defendants.

The Federal Government’s most famous secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, is the one that approved the NSA’s collection of U.S. citizens’ telephone records. The decisions of the FISC are final and are not subject to appeal. Their proceedings are closed to the public, the records sealed, and nothing exists to show that a hearing was even held.

I tried, but other than a statement that the federal judiciary and many state systems have secret courts, the only state I could find any documentation of secret courts on was Colorado. Not surprising, as they are, after all, secret.

In Colorado, any court can be a secret court. All it takes is a judge issuing a suppression order in the case. At that point, the case ceases to exist as far as the public is concerned. No information is available; not the names of the defendants, the charges they may be facing, or even the names of the judges. Dockets have only a blank space to indicate some kind of hearing is being held. Courthouse employees, law enforcement, and prosecutors all refuse to even admit that a case exists.

That means, in Colorado, a person can be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison and nobody will know why, how, or where, or even if the process was fair. The suppressed hearing can be attended by the public if anyone interested knows the hearing is being held. The only way to find out when the next hearing in a case is scheduled is to be at the hearing.

Kind of has a Star Chamber Court vibe to it, doesn’t it? Are government powers being abused and misused in these courts? Maybe we need to find out and start insisting that all the courts in the land start abiding by the requirements of the Constitution and be open and transparent to the public.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on October 25, 2018 00:30

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Source: Politico
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