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PS: Kangaroo Court

Posted by ESC on June 06, 2000

In Reply to: Kangaroo Court posted by Bruce Kahl on June 06, 2000

: One of the strangest aspects of "kangaroo court" is that the phrase is not originally from Australia, which is the only place you'll find actual kangaroos. The first "kangaroo courts" were informal tribunals set up to dispense instant justice in the American West in the 1850's, before conventional court systems existed on the frontier. Later on, "kangaroo court" was used to describe mock courts set up by penitentiary prisoners to intimidate and extort money from new inmates. Today we usually use the term to mean any court whose verdict is arranged in advance or otherwise clearly unfair.

: So the question is why "kangaroo" was used to describe such mockeries of justice, and there are two basic possibilities. First: that "kangaroo" is a sardonic analogy between the hopping gait of a kangaroo and the irrational and unpredictable conduct of the original frontier tribunals. Considering the leaps of logic and complete disregard for legal procedure likely to be found in such a proceeding, the comparison certainly seems apt.

: Another possibility is that "kangaroo" in this case is simply a metaphor for something utterly alien and unnatural. Most people back then had never even heard of kangaroos, let alone seen one in person, and the critters were generally considered to violate the laws of nature. So labeling something "kangaroo" back then was roughly equivalent to calling it "Martian" today.

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 Funke (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."