Addendum to Legal Terms in the News

By Maeve Maddox

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A recent post about legal terms in the news drew several interesting comments from readers, prompting this addendum.

One reader pointed out that I’d omitted the term “stare decisis.” As I recall, “stare decisis” is the very term that led me to write the post in the first place, but somehow, I managed to leave it out.

stare decisis
the legal principle that points in litigation should be determined according to precedent.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization rejected the principle of stare decisis by ruling against the precedent established by Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Another term that I had intended to include in the previous post is “depraved indifference.”

depraved indifference
the state of mind in which a defendant acted with such utter disregard for human life that it is apparent that the defendant was completely indifferent to the risk of death to another human being. The standard of depraved indifference is used to determine whether a defendant is guilty of murder, manslaughter, or some other crime involving bodily harm.

Defendant was convicted, after a jury trial, of “depraved indifference” murder for the shooting death of Timothy Range. [He fired a gun in close quarters at a party.]

kangaroo court
The reader who pointed out the omission of stare decisis also suggested that the term “kangaroo court” should have been included in the earlier post. I did not include it because a kangaroo court is “an improperly constituted court having no legal standing.” However, since the term does occur fairly frequently in the news, it does belong in the list.

An early use of the term applied to informal assemblies of miners who met to decide accusations of “claim-jumping.”

It was a kangaroo court of mutineers on HMS Bounty that decided the fate of Captain Bligh.

A common trope in TV detective series shows the hero drawn into a kangaroo court convened by convicts who have taken over a prison.

A kangaroo court is totally extra-judicial, but that fact does not prevent lawyers and lawmakers from throwing the term around.

Back in 2015, then-Governor (and lawyer) Rod Blagojevich called the Illinois Senate’s impeachment proceedings against him, “a kangaroo court.”

In 2021, Senator Josh Hawley condemned the January 6 attack on the Capitol but described the US Senate impeachment trial proceedings against former President Donald Trump as “a total kangaroo court.” (Politico, 11 February 2021)

An article titled “Kangaroo Courts” appears in the Harvard Law Review (20 February 2021). It is a response to the findings in Criminal Municipal Courts by Professor Alexandra Natapoff. Her study found that municipal courts “are sometimes replete with conflicts of interests, shockingly staffed with non-lawyer judges, and often flouting [sic] standard criminal procedure protections.”

Natapoff does not refer to the courts in her study as “kangaroo courts,” but the author of the Law Review article argues that the objects of her study are essentially that. I only skimmed, but the comparisons the writer draws seem labored and unconvincing.

A municipal court may dispense unjust outcomes, but it nevertheless exists within an established legal system. In my view, rather than calling such courts “kangaroo courts,” it might be preferable to call them “corrupt courts” and urge the Justice Department to do something to clean them up.

Black’s Law Dictionary discusses ways in which a legally constituted court can act as a kangaroo court, but the examples given seem to apply to what is more accurately called a “show trial.”

show trial
a public trial in which the judicial authorities have already determined the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The show trial has as its only goal the public presentation of both the charges and the verdict as a means of warning others against offending the authorities.

Representative Perry accuses Democrats of coming up with a predetermined outcome in their investigation, calling it a “a Soviet-style show trial.”—CNN 9 June 2022

A comment on the previous DWT article by Venqax sums up the difference between a kangaroo court and a show trial:

Both terms are being tossed around as if they are synonymous, but they really are not. A kangaroo court lacks official legitimacy or legitimate procedure. Something akin to a lynch mob (but still, not synonymous). A show trial is arguably worse– a proceeding with official imprimatur conducted with a pre-determined conclusion, without genuine participation by the defendant. What detractors accuse the January 6 hearings of being is a show trial, not a kangaroo court. Regardless of its motives, it is legally constituted and has defined procedures.

Neither term applies to the January 6 hearings because
1. the procedure is a legally convened event and
2. a hearing is not the same as a court trial.

In a hearing, testimony and limited evidence are presented. In a trial, disputing parties come together to present arguments and evidence before a judge and jury or another legally empowered authority.

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