“They are the most powerful members of our community.
They have a shattering secret.
A secret that will affect us all.
Only one man is willing to stop them.
On August 5, you’ll know who they really are.”
Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) is an idealistic Los Angeles jurist who gets frustrated when the technicalities of the law prevent the prosecution of a man who was charged with numerous murders of elderly women for their welfare money and two other men who are accused of raping and killing an eight-year old boy as part of a suspected child pornography ring.
Hardin is even more distraught when the father of the boy attempts to shoot the criminals in court but misses and shoots one of the arresting officers instead. Subsequently, the father commits suicide while in jail only after he informs Hardin that another boy has been discovered raped and murdered and tells him “This one is on you, your Honor. That boy would be alive if you hadn’t let those men go.”
After hearing all this, Judge Hardin approaches his friend, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook), who tells him of a modern-day Star Chamber: a group of judges who identifies criminals who fell through the judicial system’s cracks and then takes action against them outside the legal structure with a hired assassin.
Judge Hardin participates in one of these proceedings in which he presents the case of the two criminals. The Star Chamber declares them “guilty” and dispatches the assassin.
Soon afterward, however, police detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto) comes to Hardin with conclusive evidence that someone else raped and killed the boy. Realizing that he and the Star Chamber have just sentenced two men to die for a crime that they did not commit, Hardin implores the Star Chamber to recall the assassin, but is told by the other judges that the hit cannot be canceled. For the judges’ own protection, their system includes a buffer between themselves and the assassin; they do not know who he is, and he doesn’t know who they are. They rationalize to Hardin that although an occasional mistake is inevitable and regrettable, what they are doing still serves society’s greater good — especially, they argue, considering that the two targeted men are clearly criminals who are guilty of numerous other crimes, even if not of the specific crime for which the group convicted them.
Hardin makes it clear that he does not accept their reasoning. Caulfield warns him to back down because the group will do whatever they have to in order to protect themselves. Hardin refuses to heed this warning and says he will do whatever he can do to stop the men from being killed. He then tracks down the men in an abandoned warehouse in an attempt to warn them. However, when he arrives, they do not trust him, as he has now stumbled across their illegal drug operation. After they attack him, Hardin is saved by the hitman, disguised as a police officer, who kills the two men before they can kill Hardin. The hitman points his gun at Hardin, but at the last moment, Lowes arrives and kills the hitman.
The film ends with the Star Chamber deciding another “case” without Hardin, who is outside in a car with Lowes recording their conversation.