Kangaroo Court

A kangaroo court is an unauthorized, unofficial court, the sole purpose of which is to provide the image of a fair legal process. In actuality, the fate of the accused is actually decided in advance, with no consideration being made as to the fairness of the situation. Kangaroo courts are typically associated with groups that practice their own brand of justice, which is outside of the formal judicial process. To explore this concept, consider the following kangaroo court definition.

Definition of Kangaroo Court

Noun

  1. A bogus court, the intention of which is to provide the illusion of a fair justice system where none exists.
  2. A mob, or self-appointed, tribunal that mocks society’s principals of law or human rights.

Origin

1850-1855       Americanism

What is Kangaroo Court

Kangaroo courts are systems that are set up to give the illusion of a fair and just legal process, when in actuality they do not support unbiased justice. Instead, they often decide the fate of the accused in advance, usually for the purpose of securing a conviction. This happens either by a manipulation of true court proceedings, or by denying the accused a proper defense. Essentially, a kangaroo court favors a speedy trial over following the proper procedure. Examples of kangaroo courts are those involving soldiers at war, or inmates in jail.

It is not unheard of for a kangaroo court to deliberately abuse one or more of the rights of someone who is accused of a crime. Examples of kangaroo court violations can include:

  • The right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty
  • The right to be involved in, and to control, one’s own defense
  • The right to hear a full and detailed statement of the charges filed against the accused
  • The right to omit evidence that is irrelevant or inadmissible
  • The right to cross-examine or summon witnesses
  • The right not to incriminate oneself
  • The right to be provided enough time and resources to prepare a proper defense to one’s charges
  • The right to introduce evidence that supports the acquittal of the accused
  • The right to appeal a conviction
  • The right to have a stenographic record created of any trial proceedings

Origin of Kangaroo Court

The exact origin of the term “kangaroo court” in unknown. However, because kangaroo courts are also called “mustang courts,” it is believed that the term is meant to imply that the system is synonymous with the unsophisticated nature of animals living in the wild.

Another theory is that kangaroos are known for being quick and unpredictable in their movements, like a kangaroo court can be. Similarly, kangaroos are also known for their jumping, which can refer to “claim jumping,” or illegal occupation of land or ore and mineral claims.

What is known for sure, however, is that the first accusations of kangaroo courts popped up in the U.S. around the time of the 1849 California Gold Rush. The term “kangaroo court” was first seen in print in 1853 in a magazine article titled “A Stray Yankee in Texas,” in which author Philip Paxton wrote:

“By a unanimous vote, Judge G– was elected to the bench and the ‘Mestang’ or ‘Kangaroo Court’ regularly organized.”

Show Trials

Show trials are public trials wherein those bearing judicial authority have already decided that the accused is guilty. The purpose of the actual trial is solely to present the accusation and the related verdict to the public, as an example of what not to do, and as a warning to those who may be considering engaging in the same kind of behavior. Show trials tend to be motivated by revenge, rather than by a desire to correct the behavior of the accused.

Joseph Stalin conducted show trials from 1936 to 1938 during the Great Purge. During these kangaroo court trials, hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Communist Party, and government officials, were tortured until they confessed to the political crimes of which they were accused. The Great Purge involved the large-scale “purge,” or murder, of those people, as well as the introduction of police surveillance and imprisonment.

It is estimated that between 600,000 and 3 million people were killed by the Soviet government during the Purge. The Purge was Stalin’s method for removing any dissenters to the Communist Party while also strengthening his authority as the leader of the Soviet Union.

Another historical example of kangaroo court is that of the Nazi Volksgerichtshof trials, which involved individuals who collaborated on the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler. The individuals had their belts taken away so as to appear pathetic when they were forced to hold up their pants before the audience that had gathered to watch the trials. The judge, Roland Freisler, shouted insults at the individuals throughout the course of the trial, which was filmed for the purposes of being used as propaganda material.

Kangaroo Courts in the Sports World

Kangaroo courts in the sports world take on a different meaning than those in the legal profession. Major League Baseball teams, for instance, have established kangaroo courts to punish players for mistakes they make both on and off the field. Examples of kangaroo court violations in the sports world can include being late for games or practice sessions, not wearing the right attire, or having a messy locker.

There have been several examples of kangaroo courts in the sports world. In 1975, the Cleveland Indians appointed Oscar Gamble to run their “kangaroo court,” which would impose menial fines for silly offenses. For instance, as the judge, Gamble assessed a $1 fine to Frank Robinson for taking time for batting practice, but then not playing in the game later that same day. The New York Yankees were no strangers to kangaroo court, as they held mock “courts” in their clubhouse several times throughout the team’s history.

Fines may be imposed in kangaroo courts in the sports world, and at the end of the year the money that is collected is often donated to charity. Other times, the money that is collected goes toward funding a team party at the end of the season.

Kangaroo Court Example Involving Brown University

In 2014, a male student at Brown University, referred to as “John Doe” in the court papers, engaged in a sexual encounter with a fellow student (“Ann Roe”). Before and after the incident took place, the students had been exchanging explicit text messages. After the two broke up – a year later – that Roe went to the school’s administration, saying that Doe had sexually assaulted her on that night.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that requires educational institutions to protect the civil rights of their students, among other things. In compliance with the University’s sexual assault complaint process, the university hired an investigator to look into Roe’s allegations. The investigator was tasked with interviewing people, collecting evidence, and making a report based on her findings to the Title XI panel.

Although the female student had withheld important text messages from the investigator, and witnesses confirmed John Doe’s contention that she was willing and enthusiastic, the investigator cut her investigation – and her report – short. She decided not to attempt to obtain the missing text messages, and refused to interview a witness who claimed to have heard Roe and a friend discussing her plan to get him in trouble. Aside from the incomplete investigation, the investigator went so far as to give advice to the panel as to how they should decide the matter – something the investigator is not supposed to do.

The university, based on the investigator’s report and recommendation, suspended John Doe, and barred him from campus until after Roe had graduated. Doe, who had always denied the woman’s allegations, claiming that her story was fabricated, filed a civil lawsuit against the university, seeking a reversal of its findings and his punishment.

After reviewing the facts of the case, the Court pointed out the flaws in Brown’s logic, using Merriam Webster’s definition of consent to argue that Brown’s definition was extreme at best, and that a boyfriend who “artfully” bought a girl dinner with the hope of having sex with her later on could, with Brown’s logic, be potentially found guilty of sexual misconduct for attempting to manipulate the girl into having sex with him.

The Court believed that the panel had been biased against Doe from the very beginning, and decided that the panel had been severely unqualified to make such a major decision. This was largely due to the fact that the panel was staffed with faculty, staff, and students, rather than with members of law enforcement. The panel was given five hours of training before being permitted to hear a case which, the Court reasoned, was not enough to enable someone to decide something as important as the fate of an individual’s life and reputation.

The Court ruled that Brown’s procedural defects in their handling of Doe’s case were so significant that they could be considered equivalent to the violation of a contract. The panel’s proceedings amounted to a kangaroo court, leading the Court to note that there was indeed “an organized campaign to influence the outcome” of the panel’s decision. The judge ordered Brown University to throw out its findings, withdraw its punishment of Doe, and clear Doe’s student record. However, the Court also noted that, unfortunately, there was nothing standing in Brown’s way to stop them from holding a new hearing in order to reconsider the allegations against Doe at a later date.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Acquit – To free someone of a criminal charge with a finding of not guilty.
  • Acquittal – A judgment that finds a person to be not guilty of the crime of which he was accused.
  • Cross-Examination – The interrogation of a witness in court, who was initially called by the other party to the stand, for the purpose of challenging testimony that had already been given.
  • Evidence – The available facts or information that proves the validity of a belief or proposition.
  • Gold Rush – A large-scale and hurried movement of people to an area where gold is reported to have been discovered.
  • Witness – A person who watches an event as it happens in real time.

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