Kangaroo court is an informal pejorative term for a court that ignores recognized standards of law or justice, carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides, and is typically convened ad hoc. A kangaroo court may ignore due process and come to a predetermined conclusion. The term is also used for a court held by a legitimate judicial authority, but which intentionally disregards the court's legal or ethical obligations (compare show trial).
A kangaroo court could also develop when the structure and operation of the forum result in an inferior brand of adjudication. A common example of this is when institutional disputants ("repeat players") have excessive and unfair structural advantages over individual disputants ("one-shot players").
The term is known to have been used in the United States in 1841: an article in The Daily Picayune, New Orleans quotes the Concordia Intelligencer reporting several lynchings "upon various charges instituted by the Kangaroo court", asking "Don't comprehend: What is a Kangaroo court?" The term is not attested to have been used in Australia, native land of the kangaroo, or elsewhere before then.
Some sources suggest that the term may have been popularized during the California Gold Rush of 1849 to which many thousands of Australians flocked. In consequence of the Australian miners' presence, it may have come about as a description of the hastily carried-out proceedings used to deal with the issue of claim-jumping miners.
The derivation of the term is not known, although there has been speculation. It could be from the notion of justice proceeding "by leaps", like a kangaroo – in other words, "jumping over" (intentionally ignoring) evidence that would be in favour of the defendant. An alternative suggestion is that, as these courts are often convened quickly to deal with an immediate issue, they are called kangaroo courts since they have "jumped up" out of nowhere, like a kangaroo. Another possibility is that the phrase could refer to the pouch of a kangaroo, meaning the court is in someone's pocket.
Etymologist Philologos suggests that the term arose "because a place named Kangaroo sounded comical to its hearers, just as place names like Kalamazoo, and Booger Hole, and Okeefenokee Swamp, strike us as comical."
As informal proceedings in sport
The term is sometimes used without any negative connotation. For example, many Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball teams have a kangaroo court to punish players for errors on the field, being late for a game or practice, not wearing proper attire to road games, or having a messy locker in the clubhouse. Fines are allotted, and at the end of the year, the money collected is given to charity or used for a team party at the end of the season.
Some examples of quasi-judicial proceedings that could be described as kangaroo courts are:
- Moscow trials, a series of show trials held by the Soviet Union in 1936–1938 against prominent long-time leaders of Soviet Bolsheviks such as Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Karl Radek, Georgy Pyatakov, etc. Verdicts of Moscow trials were pre-defined by Joseph Stalin and specified by decrees of Politburo CPSU.
- The Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) of Nazi Germany that convicted people who were suspected of being involved with the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944.
- In 1835, a so-called "vigilance committee" in Nashville, Tennessee, United States, ran a show but legally meaningless trial, by which they convicted abolitionist minister Amos Dresser of distribution of abolitionist publications; he repeatedly claimed innocence. He was publicly whipped 20 lashes, after which he left Tennessee as soon as he could do so safely.
- In August 1979, the People's Revolutionary Tribunal, in Cambodia, tried Pol Pot and his brother Ieng San. After a lengthy trial with a duration of five days, both were sentenced to death in absentia on 19 August 1979. Conclusive evidence showed that the verdicts and the sentencing papers had been prepared in advance of the trial. Relying on this evidence, the United Nations proceeded to de-legitimize the tribunal, stating that it did not comply with standards of international law.
- During the Romanian Revolution in 1989, President and Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena Ceausescu were sentenced to death by a kangaroo court consisting of members of the military: two military judges, two colonels, and three other officers of lesser ranks. The prosecutor was Dan Voinea; two lawyers represented the defendant. All the members of the court were part of the Romanian People's Army, which had recently switched to the side of the revolutionaries.
- In July 1987, five individuals (most prominently Anatoly Dyatlov, Viktor Bryukhanov, and Nikolai Fomin) implicated in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster were put on trial in what was widely recognized as a show trial with pre-determined verdicts. Despite strong evidence that serious design flaws in the Soviet RBMK nuclear reactor were largely to blame for the accident, all defendants were sentenced to hard labor in Soviet labor camps.
- Extrajudicial killing – Intentional and unlawful killings of individuals by state actors without judicial process
- Drumhead court-martial – Court-martial held in the field to hear urgent charges of offences committed in action
- International arbitration – Arbitration between companies or individuals in different countries
- Judicial misconduct – situation in which a judge acts in ways that are considered unethical
- Lawfare – Weaponizing jurisdiction
- Legal abuse
- Lynching – Extrajudicial killing by a group
- Mock trial – Simulation of court hearings
- NKVD troika – Set of three officials of the Soviet political police issuing quick sentences
- Presumption of guilt – Presumption that a person is guilty of a crime
- Show trial – Public trial in which the guilt or innocence of the defendant is predetermined
- Star Chamber – 15th to 17th century English court
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- "What is a Kangaroo court, neighbor?". The Daily Picayune. August 24, 1841. p. 2 – via Newspapers.com.
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I'm not going to have a kangaroo court taken into this parliament.
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- Dresser, Amos (1836). The narrative of Amos Dresser : With Stone's letters from Natchez, an obituary notice of the writer, and two letters from Tallahassee, relating to the treatment of slaves. New-York, NY: American Anti-Slavery Society. — Link is to a "reprinting". 1836. Archived from the original on August 23, 2023. Retrieved July 30, 2021. in the collection Slave Rebels, Abolitionists, and Southern Courts
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