Circuit Judge
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Basic Information

A judge who moves from place to place within his area of jurisdiction, "riding the circuit."

Circuit Judges in the American West

In the early days of the United States of America, the country had a large land area and a relatively low population density. This became even more so when the Western Territories were acquired. Among other things, this meant that most towns and counties didn't need a full-time judge.

The Circuit Judge is a Western Character most notable for his conspicuous absence from Western Stories. He gets mentioned plenty, but rarely has screen time. Suspects get held in a cell in the back of the Sheriff's office, awaiting the judge's arrival. Before the judge can get there, there'll be a lynching, or an attempted lynching that's prevented by timely Shaming the Mob. Or maybe the real criminal will commit another crime, and the Wrongly Accused can go free. If things around town get too hot, the Sheriff might pass the criminal off to a US Marshal, entrusting the Federal officer will transport the suspect to the Judge.

Once the Circuit Judge shows up, he's either the Hanging Judge or a Reasonable Authority Figure, depending on the needs of the plot.

Circuit Judges in England

Circuit judges originate in medieval England where King Henry II appointed a number of judges to move from city to city hearing cases that would otherwise have had to be brought to the royal courts in London. These judges supervised the "circuit courts" - also known as "eyre1 courts" and served the same function that would later be revived on the American frontier. Due to their slow progress they were later supplemented by the assizes, a similar travelling court including the "Commissioners of gaol delivery" who filtered cases ahead of time, dealing with those within their authority, bailing some prisoners and dismissing anything that didn't require the attention of any of the travelling courts.

The travelling circuits persisted into the twentieth century in some parts of the UK, after which point communications were generally good enough and populations high enough that everyone was within range of a permanent court. Today the title is used to designate certain specialist high court judges instead.



Game and Story Use

  • PCs could be U.S. Marshals (or a Posse the Marshal deputized) transporting a criminal across The Wild West. Of course, the Gang of Outlaws is sure to try to rescue their former leader (or kill the stool pigeon before he can testify).
  • PCs could be the Circuit Judge and his entourage - a US Marshal, a District Attorney and Circuit Defender, a snooping Newspaper Man or Dime Novelist, etc. Running the Circuit would be a fairly organic way to get the PCs to a new Adventure Town every week. The campaign could be a mix of courtroom drama interwoven with exciting elements of The Western genre.
  • The same applies to adventures in medieval England, with the slow progress of the courts adding to the tension - in case the prisoner escapes/is rescued or dies of gaol fever (or being too expensive to keep locked up) in the interim.
  • The imminent arrival of an eyre court - or even the rumour of such - could provoke something close to panic in a suitably disreputable town. Any party mistaken for the Royal Justices and their retinue…
  • Any PC with suitable legal enforcement powers might have a similar role - in some settings this could simply mean high enough noble rank, in others membership of a specific order might be required.
  • In an empire a circuit judge could be a representative of the Emperor and have a legal authority above that of the local monarch - impressive enough in an English style adversarial system, but in an inquisitorial legal system…
    • Regardless, all kinds of intrigue might ensure, possibly not directly related to the courts of law - or facts might emerge at trial that pose a deadly threat to the local government, and thus possibly to the judge.
    • At the very least, the presence of a trans-national authority, possibly from a different culture, could cause unrest - whether he condemns a criminal the locals consider innocent or vice versa.
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