A kangaroo court is a court that ignores recognized standards of law or justice and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides. A kangaroo court may ignore due process and come to a predetermined conclusion. The term may also apply to a court held by a legitimate judicial authority which intentionally disregards the court's legal or ethical obligations.
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 kangaroo court is often erroneously believed to have its origin from the courts of Australia's penal colonies. 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. There are, however, earlier instances of the term including an 1841 article in The Daily Picayune in New Orleans that quotes another publication, the Concordia Intelligencer, reporting several lynchings instituted "on charges of the Kangaroo court". The Picayune article also asks "What is a Kangaroo court, neighbor?" Some sources suggest that it 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. Ostensibly, the term comes 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 theory is that as these courts are often convened quickly to deal with an immediate issue, they are called kangaroo courts as 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 argues that the term arose "because a place named Kangaroo sounded comical to its hearers, just as place names like Kalamazoo and Booger Hole and Okefenokee Swamp strike us as comical."
The phrase is popular in the U.K., U.S., Australia and New Zealand and is still in common use.
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.
Some examples of adjudication venues described as kangaroo courts are the People's Court (Volksgerichtshof) 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.
Another example is the trial of Pol Pot and his brother Ieng San by the People's Revolutionary Tribunal in Cambodia in August 1979. After a lengthy trial with a duration of five days, both were sentenced to death in absentia on August 19, 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 delegitimize 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 Ceau?escu and his wife Elena 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 represented the Romanian People's Army, which had recently switched to the side of the revolutionaries.