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Travelling Imperial Magistrates
An Idea for a Campaign Backdrop for Traveller

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue.

The Imperium is big, and local matters are local, but nearly every inhabited world has, at the very least, a starport that falls under Imperial, not local, law. Many also have vast territories that are ruled under the Imperial Code of Justice (ICJ), or significant sections thereof, on account of them belonging to an Imperial noble who wants to run them in that fashion, thus not declaring separate sovereignty1.

To this end, the Imperium has various court systems, most notably, civil, criminal, and admiralty courts to handle contractual disputes, violations of Imperial law, and matters related to interstellar commerce, piracy, and the rules of war. These court systems are empowered and supervised by the Imperial Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and, in the case of admiralty courts, by the Imperial Navy.

But there’s another court system used in some regions of the Imperium called the magisterial system, and it’s different from the other Imperial courts in that it’s empowered and supervised by the mid-to-lesser nobility (from dukes down to barons) rather than being under the thumb of bureaucrats from the MOJ or the Navy.

These courts consist of some odd number of magistrates, usually one to nine with three being the most common, the lower courts often referring difficult (or politically charged) cases up the hierarchy, sometimes in a bid for more time to allow things to cool, but sometimes because they don’t feel competent to rule on a particular matter, particularly one involving a noble who ranks higher than the level at which they were empowered.2

Likewise, cases can be appealed up the chain, although most appeals are denied, and the legal process is too expensive for most individuals to undertake. Nonetheless, sometimes fees are waived, depending on the rules of the court in question, so it’s conceivable that a ducal court could end up overturning a ruling on some seemingly insignificant matter if, by some miracle, one of the litigants was sufficiently well-connected.

Magisterial courts are sometimes stationary, but quite often they travel between the worlds of a noble’s fief, making rulings on a wide gamut of issues, the magistrates sometimes traveling separately, sometimes as a party, and sometimes aboard their own ship with a crew that ferries them from place to place. Because they routinely decide cases that may involve the lives of very important people and millions or even billions of credits, they often travel with bodyguards, and if they have a ship, it will certainly have security personnel sufficient to match that of an ambassadorial delegation from the same level of the noble hierarchy at which they were empowered.

Baronial and marquisial courts are the most stationary, sometimes traveling around a single world or to different planets in a star system depending on the size and internal politics of the barony or marquisate. Viscounty and county courts run a circuit of two to six worlds. Ducal courts travel around a subsector, usually only stopping at the most important worlds.

Each magisterial court has its own rules and procedures. Some televise their proceedings whereas others don’t even allow friendly journalists. Some require in-person testimony, while others allow testimony by recorded deposition. Some allow advocates and attorneys an absolute right to cross-examine witnesses, regardless of their social rank, while others only allow magisterial cross-examination, and still others may refuse cross-examination entirely.

Aside from the magistrates, each magisterial court also has at least one court legate, who advises the magistrates on Imperial law, as well as a public advocate and defender (sometimes the same person), an archivist, who is charged with recording the proceedings, and an armed bailiff. Courts may also have magisterial investigators, who may look into the facts of a case and take offsite depositions.

Whether or not a case that begins in the magisterial system can be moved or appealed to the MOJ system or the Admiralty is generally determined at the ducal level, and is typically a matter of negotiation between a local duke and Imperial diplomats and/or officers of the Imperial Navy. There are many dukes who do not want to cede interpretation of Imperial law to outsiders, as doing so can be financially ruinous, but in cases that involve cross-subsector disputes, they are often pressured into doing so, as the only other alternative, outside of a negotiated settlement, is interplanetary warfare, which can get quite expensive.

Cases of treason by a noble cannot be tried by magisterial courts. These cases can only be tried by an Imperial High Court, but such courts can be created from an existing magisterial court, if the court’s empowering noble also has the power to create a high court. In this way, a magisterial court, usually one at the ducal level, can briefly become an Imperial High Court for the specific purpose of trying a noble charged with treason.

Implementing Magisterial Courts In-Play

The PCs can get involved with the magisterial court system via a number of ways, either as witnesses, defendants, petitioners, magisterial investigators, or even as magistrates.

Prior to being selected as an Imperial magistrate, a character must have reached the noble rank of 3 as either an administrator or a diplomat and must then gain the confidence of a mid-to-lesser noble and/or a chief magistrate who is in need of someone of suitable experience, judgment, and reputation to serve on a magisterial court.

To transfer from administration or diplomacy to the magisterial court system during character generation, roll 12+ immediately prior to reenlistment, applying DM+1 for every career rank above 3 (so +0 for a manager or 1st secretary, +1 for a chief or counsellor, +2 for a director or diplomatic minister, and +3 for an administrative minister or ambassador) and DM+1 for every point of Social Standing above 10. Magistrates continue to progress as administrators but may take their mustering out benefits without actually quitting their jobs.

If they receive ship shares, it means they own part of the ship they travel in, possibly in conjunction with the empowering noble and/or other magistrates, or they may own sufficient shares in an interstellar cruise line to get free passage wherever it travels. If they receive a yacht, it means they own the ship, but also have a mortgage. However, as long as they continue serving as a magistrate, the court’s empowering noble will continue paying the ship’s interest, maintenance, and reasonable crew expenses, meaning that anything extra the ship makes can be applied to the mortgage’s principal. However, because the magistrate’s reputation must be protected, it is vitally important that his or her employees and companions not do anything that could tarnish the magistrate’s reputation.

Many magisterial yachts carry not just the magistrates but also the ancillary personnel (the legate, the archivist, the bailiff, the public advocate and defender, magisterial investigators, etc.) as well as security personnel and, of course, the ship’s crew. That’s a lot of salaries and other expenses, but the court’s empowering noble will be all too happy to pay them so long as he or she is getting the sort of rulings from the court that he or she wants. If not, magistrates can be fired (or worse), just like anyone else.

One of the magistrates, usually the one who owns the ship, is the court’s chief (or presiding) magistrate, and it is he or she who actually runs the court, determining who is allowed to speak and when and to what extent. Chief magistrates also typically have considerable sway when it comes to selecting replacements for retiring magistrates, and, likewise, they can also have an influence of firing decisions as well.

When a magistrate retires, presiding or otherwise, it usually involves some sort of golden parachute, such as a generous pension or a personal fief, in order to keep him or her from writing a tell-all memoir, however, if the relationship becomes particularly acrimonious and the noble doesn’t want to publicly fire the magistrate due to political concerns, he or she might resort to some other method to permanently retire the magistrate in such as way that he/she can’t embarrass the noble at some later date.

All this, of course, can be as complicated and Machiavellian as you (the referee) want to make it, as the Imperium, by and large, still adheres to the Rule of Man, not law, and hence is often a place where nobles can twist whatever laws do exist in whatever fashion they choose. And this isn’t even always a bad thing, as it is often best to bend the law toward the local culture whenever possible, so as to offend the fewest sophonts. But, of course, that’s just the public justification for a system of justice that is, essentially, rotten to the core. In short, this is a great way to highlight corruption and create moral quandaries that the players will have to navigate, and they will probably hate you for it.

Play hard and have fun.

Example Case #13

Ms. Giri Dumkir, a high-altitude construction worker, fell from a high-rise being built by Liiluun Investments, however, Giri wasn’t working for Liiluun directly. Liiluun had hired Sibukpa Electrical, a subcontractor that specialized in electrical installation, and according to Sibukpa, Giri was wearing the necessary safety equipment, including a nine kilogram auto-initiating grav-chute, made by Izasda Industries, which Sibukpa claims malfunctioned. Izasda inspected the unit and claims that its internal log appears to have been destroyed by tampering, not by the fall. Meanwhile, Giri’s husband, now a widower, is suing Liiluun and Sibukpa for wrongful death, claiming that his wife told him that her supervisor told her not to wear the safety equipment if it was slowing her down to the point that she couldn’t meet her work quota. Sibukpa denies this, and, in any case, doesn’t have much in assets even if they lose. Liiluun points to their contract with Sibukpa, which categorically states that Sibukpa employees must wear appropriate safety equipment at all times. Nonetheless, Liiluun may have known that safety procedures were not being followed and looked the other way, however, proving this will be difficult. To complicate matters, the court’s empowering noble owns a stake in Liiluun and doesn’t want a verdict that forces them to pay very much or change the way they do business, which would make them less competitive. He doesn’t own shares in Izasda, however, so if blame for the whole mishap can be placed on them, that would be fine.

Example Case #24

Last year, Starlaw announced prosecutions against members of a subsector-wide drug cartel. Included in these prosecutions are executives of Yinhang, a banking megacorp, which was found guilty of laundering six billion credits of drug cartel money. However, due to the fact that different planetary jurisdictions are involved, and each has different sentencing guidelines as well as different standards on police and court procedure, the verdict court is transferring the case(s) for judicial review and sentencing.5 In short, it’s the responsibility of the PC’s court to determine sentencing. In some cases, minimum sentencing rules will apply. For example, there are some drug mules (people who were carrying drugs inside their rectums) who, because it’s their third strike, are due to get a life sentence. As for Yinhang employees, however, there are no minimum sentences, because the archduke has decreed that mandatory minimums cannot apply to executives for properly registered megacorps. Furthermore, the court’s empowering noble wants these same executives to be given slaps on the wrists (no jail sentences), because to do otherwise could cause broader problems in the interstellar financial system. Assuming the PC magistrate does as he or she is told, Yinhang will offer him or her a high-paying consulting gig that involves essentially no work within a year of the sentencing verdict.

Example Case #36

Minzhu is ruled by a vibrant democracy that has strict campaign finance laws, but due to a recent court ruling at the baronial level, these campaign finance laws do not apply to money given by properly chartered Imperial corporations. Hence, the politicians on this world are now able to receive unlimited dark money from anyone with an Imperial corporation. A citizen’s group sued (again, at the baronial level) to try to get this overturned, and they got slapped down, so now they’re appearing the decision up the chain. If the higher court refuses to take the case, the appeal dies. Needless to say, the magistrates on the higher court will be pressured to refuse to hear the appeal.