Wednesday, April 02, 2008

By Leaps and Bounds

Q. What is a kangaroo court?

A. There are a couple of definitions. First, it may be defined as an improperly constituted court with no legal standing whatsoever. This could occur during a prison riot when the inmates convict some of their own to death.

Second, it may be a properly constituted court that acts in an unfair, biased, and hasty way. In this sense, it goes back to the California Gold Rush. Many Australian immigrants were attracted by the promise of wealth, and they may have brought the image of a bounding kangaroo with them.

What’s at question is who was doing the leaping, jumping, or hopping. One theory says that these courts were often convened to deal with claim jumpers; hence, the name. Another theory points to the system of itinerant judges in those days. They hopped from place to place, bringing organized justice with them. In some cases, they drew their salaries from the fines imposed on the guilty, so the unscrupulous and greedy amongst them may have jumped to convenient conclusions.

The term has entered official Supreme Court records. In Williams v. United States, Associate Justice William O. Douglas wrote, "Where police take matters in their own hands, seize victims, beat and pound them until they confess, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the police have deprived the victim of a right under the Constitution. It is the right of the accused to be tried by a legally constituted court, not by a kangaroo court."

SIDEBAR: Kangaroos and more

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