by Zachary Reger
Upon the thud of the Grand Speaker’s gavel, the Galactic Assembly declared Edict No. 73946 third read and finally passed.
As per procedure, the Essence of the Edict was ritually ensconced. The record captured the precise legal intent of the Assembly, as collective, at the exact nanosecond of enactment, transmuting such perfect knowledge into clear, digital code. The code, the Essence of the law, lay within the record. Each Edict had a record, and each record had an Edict.
Upon the conclusion of the legislative session, the Assembly adjourned sine die. Each Edict, as so in record, was transported, by pneumatic tube, to the Galactic Legal Archives. There, the Edict would become a universal public record. Each universal public record would be further transmitted, instantly upon engrossment in the Archives, to the Visicastor of every Galactic citizen. The Visicastor, required of all citizens by Edict of the Assembly, imparted perfect knowledge of its registered contents onto the mind of its bearer.
Thus, the lawgivers had reclaimed and expanded their primacy within the separation of powers. Gone were the cumbersome statutory codes of ancient regimes, subject to manipulation by crafty tribunals, executives, and private entities. Gone were the legal professionals who exacted high fees for the discharge of a public service—that is, imparting upon members of the public an expert knowledge of the law. Not a citizen of the Galactic community would exist without a perfect comprehension of the requirements of the law, as faultlessly captured by its lawfully elected enactors, and of whatever conduct in whatever place at whatever time would infringe its dictates.
In short, the art of law had been perfected.
There was no chime as Edict No. 73946 arrived in the Visicastor of each Galactic citizen. There was no notice, no blaring disruption of a citizen’s daily activities. At one moment, a citizen simply had no knowledge of the Edict. The next moment, they did.
Edward was one such Galactic citizen, a peace officer, by trade. Many centuries ago, peace officers had been the first required to maintain an active Visicastor while on the job. Eventually, this requirement expanded to all hours, both on duty and off. Then, to every government official, high and low. At last, to every citizen—each themselves a part of the democratic community and responsible for its upkeep.
This afternoon, Edward was off duty, running errands on the town. That town, a minor village of a backwater province of an outer-rim planet, had a single bank. The First Central Bank, it was aptly named. As Edward required a certified note for a downpayment on a vacation home, he decided to visit First Central to check one more item off his list of chores.
But the day would hold more for Edward than just a few errands. As Edward approached the teller’s booth, a trio of hooded figures crashed through the front door and into the small, gilded lobby. With one blast of a phazer into the air, the robbers had a half-dozen civilians on the ground. Two of the three corralled the citizens into respective corners. The third approached the teller. With a curt gesture, the needed information was exchanged: everything you have into the bag, or else.
Edward, neither fully noble nor ignoble, but possessing, at times, a sense of public duty if not exaggerated self-importance, sprang into action. With a flick of his hand, Edward’s phazer found its targets. Set to stun—a default long required of peace officers by Edict of the Assembly, on duty or off—the phazer incapacitated one then the other of the robbers who held the civilians under threat. As Edward turned to face the third robber, still at the teller’s booth, bag in hand, a string of events happened in quick succession.
First, the third robber grabbed the teller from behind the booth, pulling her by the scruff of the neck out into the lobby. The robber pulled his own phazer on the teller, holding her defenseless at gunpoint. “You let us go,” the robber demanded, “or she gets it.”
Second, legal knowledge flooded Edward’s senses. As a peace officer, Edward not infrequently found himself in such sticky situations, and was accustomed to the passive recall of embedded legal knowledge made possible by the Visicastor. Edward immediately understood that the robber had credibly threatened deadly force against an unarmed bystander. As a result, the law authorized, yet did not require, proportionate deadly force to be used against the attacker if doing so had a “probable chance” of thwarting the threatened attack, but not if doing so had a better than even chance of directly or indirectly inflicting grievous harm upon the victim.
Edward knew, instantaneously, that the concept of direct or indirect infliction of grievous harm, in the combined intent of the enactors, included harm inflicted either directly from Edward’s own firing of his phazer, which could miss and hit the victim, or indirectly from the robber’s firing of his phazer, which could be triggered by Edward’s own firing. As Edward’s phazer was set to stun, his only legal concern would be the latter—an indirect infliction of grievous harm.
But Edward also knew, instantaneously, that this general legal landscape had been complicated by the passage of Edict No. 73946, enacted mere hours ago. The Edict required that a peace officer attempt a negotiation before firing upon a hostage taker, so long as it was not “fairly probable” that the attacker may injure his hostage during such attempt. The enactors had been concerned with a few high-profile cases of gun-toting “heroes,” knowing with certainty that the law stood on their side, being much too quick to pull the trigger when still nonviolent alternatives remained.
Third, the third robber’s own Visicastor informed him of the various penalties for the offenses he had already committed or could still commit in the ongoing altercation. For attempted armed robbery, the robber faced a Class D Galactic felony, punishable by up to four years’ imprisonment. Were the robbery successful, the Class D Galactic felony would become a Class C Galactic felony, punishable by up to ten years’ imprisonment. As one of three, the robber also faced a probable conspiracy charge, which would make his co-conspirators liable for all offenses committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, whether they had personally committed such offenses or not.
The third robber knew, instantaneously, that murder in the commission of an armed robbery carried a higher sentence than those offenses he had already committed—twenty years’ imprisonment, a Class B Galactic felony. The third robber also knew that the grievous injury of a peace officer in the line of duty carried an even greater sentence still—life imprisonment, a Class A Galactic felony. The third robber understood that, as a result of his conspiracy, he would be liable for offenses committed by any of his co-conspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy, just as his co-conspirators would be liable for such offenses he himself committed. And per the enactors’ intent, an off duty peace officer reacting to an ongoing offense was “in the line of duty.”
Fourth, the first robber, who, unbeknownst to Edward but known full well by her co-conspirators, had been wearing a protective vest that blunted the stunning effects of Edward’s phazer, stumbled to her feet in a bloody rage, raising her phazer directly in Edward’s direction.
Fifth, the first robber, informed by her Visicastor, knew instantly of the dangerous mistake she had made. Not only had she, in her rage, nearly fired upon a peace officer and incurred a lifetime behind bars, she had won the wrath of her co-conspirator. The best interests of that co-conspirator would be to fire upon her first, thus preventing her from harming the peace officer and triggering a sentence of life imprisonment for all three co-conspirators. And so the first robber’s own interests would, in turn, be best served by doing whatever was necessary to forestall the friendly fire of her co-conspirator—up to and including firing the first shot.
Sixth, the second robber, similarly armored, stumbled to his feet. His thought process was much the same as that of the first robber. Yet he, also Visicastor-informed of the laws in play, understood the interests of the third robber in firing upon the first, as well as the interests of the first in forestalling such attack. Murder of a co-conspirator would subject them all (or at least those who survived) to a Class C Galactic felony—much preferable to the Class A Galactic felony of grievously injuring a peace officer, but still worse than the Class D felony of attempted armed robbery of which all were currently liable. The second robber also understood that the peace officer would hesitate, in order to attempt a hostage negotiation in compliance with Edict No. 73946, and therefore not immediately fire upon the hostage-taking third robber.
Thus, the psycho-legal standoff reached its logical terminus. Edward hesitated, lowering his weapon. “Put the phazer down and let’s talk this through,” he said.
The first robber pulled her phazer on the third. “Drop the phazer, it’s over,” she said. “We can’t win this thing.”
Edward spun around, raising his weapon to face the first robber. “Hold your fire!” Edward yelled. “There’s no need to do anything rash.”
The third robber caught Edward off-guard, raising his phazer in the officer’s direction. “You shoot me, and we all go behind bars,” he said. “I’d think twice before pulling that trigger.”
The second robber raised his phazer toward the third. “Don’t you do it,” he said. “You shoot him, and I’ll have nothing to lose.”
“And nothing to gain,” replied the third.
The teller, head spinning, took this opportunity to flee from the third robber’s grasp. She pushed hard against his chest, nearly toppling him over. The teller ran straight through the lobby and out the front entrance of the bank. She did not look back. Already, her communicator was in hand, and she had the local Peace Department on the line.
In no time at all, a dozen officers (nearly half of those currently on duty) descended on the scene. With overwhelming force, they broke through the front doors of First Central Bank, surrounding the three robbers and an encumbered Edward. Phazers dropped, and handcuffs flew. Bystanders were ushered from the premises. Three detained perpetrators were led to awaiting patrol cars. Edward was offered medical attention, then interviewed by his captain about the precise sequence of events (“What sequence?” Edward was heard to reply). An on-scene detective, assisted by the teller, obtained and logged the relevant security footage. The dropped weapons were gathered as evidence. The bank closed for the rest of the evening. A crowd gathered outside, but dissipated once it was clear that any excitement had passed.
Life went back to normal, and the “Central Bank Incident,” briefly the talk of the town, became a footnote of local history.
A week later, three defendants appeared before a Galactic judge in the local district court. Trials commenced, jurors deliberated, and three co-conspirators were convicted on three counts of attempted armed robbery. No other charges were brought. Each defendant was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.
Long forgotten, an archival account of the incident piqued the interest of a junior staffer for a newly elected representative in the Galactic Assembly. When Edict No. 73946 came up for reauthorization before the Committee on the Judiciary, the representative argued that such Edict had once prevented a bloody shootout, and thus made for good law. An opposing representative demurred, arguing that the “Central Bank Incident” represented nothing more than a peculiar story. Edict No. 73946 had little to do with the resolution, and could not be expected to produce such bloodless results in future incidents.
“As they say, ‘exceptional cases make bad law,’” the representative intoned, concluding the discussion. In the end, the Committee on the Judiciary deadlocked, and the reauthorization was tabled.
Zachary Reger is a legislative drafting attorney on the nonpartisan, professional staff of the United States House of Representatives. He holds degrees in journalism, philosophy, and film studies from the University of Missouri, and a law degree from the University of Chicago. His legal scholarship explores the designs, purposes, and effects of political and legal institutions, and this story—exploring much the same themes—marks his short fiction debut.
As an “Article I” attorney, I am fascinated by the nature and role of legislation in a democratic society. This story asks what it would mean for citizens, both those sworn to uphold the law and those who wish to subvert it, to have perfect knowledge of all legislative enactments. How would such knowledge influence their behavior, for good or for ill? And is ignorance of the law (“ignorantia juris”) either curse or blessing?