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Kangaroo courts are seemingly everywhere and nowhere. Legal actors often use this term to describe substandard and defective tribunals across various areas of American law. Yet there are few scholarly treatments of this evocative term. Without embracing this specific description, Professor Alexandra Natapoff’s Criminal Municipal Courts provides vivid insights into a rarely explored world of administration that has many of the trappings of kangaroo courts. Natapoff catalogs how municipal courts — also referred to as “town,” “summary,” “justice,” “mayor,” and “police” courts — are sometimes replete with conflicts of interests, shockingly staffed with nonlawyer judges, and often flouting standard criminal procedure protections. These observations, among many others, raise important questions about our legal system’s fidelity to fundamental constitutional ideals. Like in much of her work, Natapoff goes beyond merely lifting the veil of what has gone undiscussed and goes a step further by identifying scholarly, legal, and normative possibilities for future inquiry.

Building on Natapoff’s descriptive and conceptual contributions, this Response attempts to generate a more provocative discussion by making a claim that is admittedly more polemical than Natapoff’s take but accords with many of her assiduous insights. Some of these municipal courts, I argue, could conceivably be understood as kangaroo courts. Natapoff is too careful to make such a harsh claim, and doing so is not her project. This assertion might not be useful or possible in the first contemporary, in-depth scholarly treatment of these courts. Simply mapping the boundaries, operation, and empirical features of these tribunals are tall tasks — all of which she accomplishes successfully. Her analysis, she writes, is animated by a desire to raise the institutional profile and status of these tribunals. She hopes to inject these courts into “longstanding conversations about courts, cities, and criminal justice, and to dispel the fiction that they are minor, unimportant, or uninfluential.” Yet some of her jaw-dropping descriptions of municipal courts coincide with the ways kangaroo justice has been evoked. This Response makes the controversial case that the kangaroo court metaphor can be applied to some of these municipal courts, and, in doing so, joins Natapoff in teeing up questions about what this kind of slapdash legal adjudication means for policymakers, scholars, and the public.


Criminal law & procedure, municipal courts, judges, informal adjudication, procedure, due process

Publication Title

Harvard Law Review Forum

Publication Citation

134 Harv. L. Rev. Forum 200 (2021)