Kangaroo Court

A session of the People’s Court in Nazi Germany, a kangaroo court that conducted show trials of political enemies[1]

A kangaroo court is an informal court that has already made up its mind that the accused is guilty. Official systems of justice are the opposite, with the accused presumed innocent until otherwise proven. There are some exceptions: justice in totalitarian states has often been kangaroo court style, such as in Nazi Germany. 

Kangaroo Court sounds like it ought to be Australian, but its origin is American, apparently in the California Gold Rush era around 1849. A frequent Gold Rush crime was called “claim jumping” in which one prospector seized the claim of another. 

Vigilante courts dispensing summary justice on claim jumpers may have suggested kangaroos (a few of the prospectors in California came from Australia). There are other stories about how the term originated. 

There are several kinds of kangaroo courts. Kangaroo courts sometimes occur in prisons, where prisoners judge offenses by one prisoner against another. There are stories of kangaroo courts in criminal organizations. In baseball, some teams have humorous kangaroo courts that fine players for being late to practice and for other “infractions,” with accumulated fines being donated to charity at the end of the season.

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