kangaroo court

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The term “kangaroo court” is an idiom referring to a court whose proceedings deviate so far from accepted legal norms that they can no longer be considered fair or just. The label of kangaroo court is a severe condemnation and is generally only levied against judges presiding over egregious miscarriages of justice

The term “kangaroo court” carries an implication of wrongdoing, meaning that mere incompetence is generally not enough to warrant its use. Common reasons a court may be accused of being a kangaroo court include accusations that: 

  • The court exhibited extreme bias against one of the parties.
  • There was collusion between the judge and one of the parties. 
  • The due process rights of the accused were not respected.
  • The process was completed with such excessive haste that the parties could not have a fair trial
  • The jury was not impartial. 
  • The proceedings lacked decorum.
  • The court interpreted the law in a way that would have forced a party to act in a completely unreasonable manner. 

While the term “kangaroo court” can be used in cases where either party is unfairly treated, it is more commonly used when the defendant is unfairly convicted, or in civil cases where relief is unfairly granted to a plaintiff. 

In modern courts, the idiom is used to illegitimate an unjust decision. When a judge uses the term “kangaroo court” to refer to another court, it is a strong indication the judge will overrule the previous court’s decision. Alternatively, if the judge lacks the authority to overturn the previous decision, it is a strong indication that the judge will ignore the decision’s precedential effect on their current case. 

American courts will also use the term “kangaroo courts” to describe foreign legal systems that are unjust. Although a foreign court does not need to follow American due process laws for its decisions to receive res judicata effects in the United States, fundamentally unfair courts systems are not able to bind the American justice system. 

Despite common belief to the contrary, the term “kangaroo court” has origins in early nineteenth century America, not Australia. There are two competing theories on the origin of the idiom. 

  • The more popular explanation is that the term “kangaroo court” came about to describe frontier judges who would “hop” from one town to another, with little regard for making fair rulings. 
  • Other etymologists believe that the term refers to the ad hoc and less formal courts that dealt with “claim jumpers” (gold miners who were accused of prospecting in another miner’s land). These courts were set up quickly and with comparatively little oversight. 

See also: Skilling v. United States, 130 S.Ct. 2896, 2914–17 (2010) and Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723, 726 (1963).

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]