Kangaroo Court

Posted by ESC on December 05, 2001 at

In Reply to: Kangaroo Court posted by Jim on December 05, 2001

: I understand that a "kangaroo court" is a sham or mock trial. My Webster Collegiate lists the phrase as first appearing in 1853. I found a web reference that speculates the phrase may be connected to the 1840s gold rush in California. Did "kangaroo court" originate in the gold rush era to describe the ad hoc process of resolving "claim jumping" charges? For example, is kangaroo court a humorous allusion for a "jumping court" to resolve "claim jumping" charges, or is the reference more an indication of the helter-skelter nature of the proceeding?

Here's all I know about kangaroo court:

KANGAROO COURT - There's a difference of opinion between my two sources concerning whether this phrase is Australian in origin. From the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1977): "Kangaroo court is an illegal mock or sham court, usually set up by inmates of a prison to levy fines and punishments on other inmates who violate the 'code.' Such organizations usually very informal in nature, exist in most large prisons and are even encouraged by some wardens as a useful device for maintaining order. The name probably originated at the time when Australia, land of the kangaroo, was the penal colony for the British Empire." From A Hog on Ice by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1948): "Nowadays, a kangaroo court is rarely heard of except in jails or similar institutions where a mock court, independent of regular legal procedure, is set up by the inmates to try a fellow prisoner for some alleged offense. Sometimes such courts are set up merely for amusement, as diversions against the tedium of imprisonment, and are then nothing but travesties of legal processes. Originally, however, these irregular courts were resorted to in frontier communities, usually for the trial and condemnation of persons committing offenses against the community. The source of the name is mysterious, for it is American rather than Australian; I have not found evidence of its use in Australia at any time. But as the date of origin appears to coincide closely with the gold rush to California in 1849, the guess may be hazarded that the name was in humorous allusion to the early purpose of such courts, to try 'jumpers' who, resorting to desperate measures, seized the mining claims of others. As the long arm of government had not yet reached the 'diggings,' the improvised courts were as irregular as those in today's jails, and perhaps they were sometimes equally unfair."