kangaroo court

A “kangaroo court” is an unauthorized court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted. Often, the outcome of a trial has been decided before the trial even begins. Such courts dispense a rough and ready form of justice, or sometimes injustice, and are associated with frontier settlements, inmates in jail, soldiers at war, and revolutions.

The origin of “kangaroo court” is unknown. The term sounds Australian but kangaroos and their ability to jump were known in the USA by the early 1800s, when the term is first found in print. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first published instance of the term as from an American source, A Stray Yankee in Texas by Philip Paxton, published in 1853.

The popular theory is that the term arose during the California Gold Rush of 1849, when it became necessary to control claim-jumpers. The association of ideas between jumping and kangaroos was too strong to resist. An alternative theory is that as these courts are often convened quickly to deal with an immediate issue, they are called kangaroo courts because they “jumped up” out of nowhere like a kangaroo. Or the phrase could refer to the pouch of a kangaroo, meaning the court is in someone’s pocket. But we have to keep in mind that kangaroo courts were also called “mustang courts” in the US.

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 and other mistakes on the field, as well as for 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. The organization may also use the money for a team party at the end of the season.

An example of adjudication venues described as kangaroo courts is the 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 the late 1930s, Stalin used the state legal apparatus of the USSR to fabricate charges against his political rivals, and to subsequently eliminate any challenge to his absolute rule. The show trials in the Soviet Union resulted in the wrongful conviction of Stalin’s former Old Bolshevik revolutionary colleagues.

There are many more examples. However, none involving real kangaroos.

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