Court proceedings that lack the due process protections people associate with courts of law have earned the name “kangaroo court.” The term has been in use since at least the 19th century, but it is difficult to pinpoint an exact source for it or to determine why its name includes a reference to an animal native to Australia.
As a general rule, a kangaroo court is any proceeding that attempts to imitate a fair trial or hearing without the usual due process safeguards including the right to call witnesses, the right to confront your accuser and a hearing before a fair and impartial judge. Kangaroo court proceedings are usually a sham carried out without legal authority in which the outcome has been predetermined without regard to the evidence or to the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Referring to something as a kangaroo court usually carries with it a negative inference because of the manner in which they are conducted. Here are three features of a kangaroo court that set it apart from normally accepted principles of fairness and justice.
Applying laws retroactively
Since the outcome of a kangaroo court is a foregone conclusion, one method of ensuring that a person will be found guilty is to create laws and apply them to past behavior. Ex post facto laws criminalize past conduct that was not illegal when it was performed. The benefit of ex post facto laws to those conducting a kangaroo court is that a conviction is assured.
Ex post facto laws are a violation of the U.S. Constitution. They take away a person’s right to know in advance the type of conduct that, if performed, will violate a state or federal criminal law. Removal of this most basic due process right is a characteristic of a kangaroo court.
Lack of impartial judges
Because the outcome is predetermined before any evidence is presented, kangaroo court proceedings are presided over by a judge or panel of judges that is partial toward the prosecution. Judges during a trial in a kangaroo court usually limit or obstruct efforts by the accused to present evidence or witnesses favorable to the defense while placing almost no restrictions on the evidence prosecutors are allowed to present.
The fact that the judge in a kangaroo court is part of the sham process, the punishment inflicted upon the defendant generally exceeds what might normally be justified based upon the conduct of which the defendant was accused and convicted. Harsh and severe sentences are common in a kangaroo court.
Absence of the most basic constitutional rights
The right against self-incrimination, the right to cross examine witnesses and the presumption of innocence are lacking in a typical kangaroo court. Constitutional safeguards would stand in the way of a kangaroo court reaching its predetermined result. In some instances, limited cross examination of witnesses and other fundamental due process rights might be allowed to the defendant to conceal the true nature of the kangaroo court.