Have you ever heard of the term “kangaroo court”? It refers to a case in which justice proceeds by leaps, like a kangaroo, intentionally jumping over evidence or established rules to insure a predetermined outcome. Some historians suggest the name comes from Great Britain around 1800, when a questionable justice system was used to convict and send people to Australia - home of the kangaroo. Such proceedings would be the opposite of what a legitimate system of justice desires. A fair and just system requires “due process.”
Due process means that legal proceedings are conducted in a manner that is equally fair to both sides. In a fair system, neither side is allowed a procedural advantage. Imagine a lawsuit where only one side was allowed to present witnesses or one side was allowed to hide evidence about the case. Such a proceeding would be fundamentally unfair.
Our judicial system is based on the idea that justice is achieved when both sides have a fair and equal chance to present their case to a neutral decision maker. In court, the blindfolded Lady Justice doesn’t peek to see who the parties are before deciding which rules apply to that case.
Totalitarian regimes follow processes very different from ours. We begin with the idea that an equally fair process will most likely render a result that is fair and just. Dictatorial systems start out with an end result in mind. Then, with that result always in view, a process is used to insure that the desired outcome is achieved.
Any proceeding where the outcome is predetermined is simply a “show trial.” The proceeding is not real. It is a theatrical production to achieve results regardless of the truth. The simple test is to ask, “Is the matter process-driven or result-driven?” If the matter follows a set process with no preference for how it will end, then due process is the focus. If the matter has a set result in mind and it chooses processes to guarantee that result, then it lacks the historical American ideal of fundamental due process.
American courts strive to uphold due process. Courts have written rules that apply in every case no matter who brings the lawsuit. The rules are readily available so that everyone can know them in advance. There are rules governing which evidence is admissible, when cases will be heard, when a judge or jury decides a case, how court hearings will be conducted (including when and where to stand), and a myriad of other rules to insure fairness to both sides.
Lawyers, known as “officers of the court,” are honor-bound to scrupulously follow the rules to insure that both sides get their fair day in court. My experience is that the vast majority of lawyers take this duty very seriously. Minnesotans can be proud of our legal system. Our courts have consistently been rated as one of the most highly respected legal systems in the country. This is largely due to the judiciary’s commitment to insist on fairness and due process to all litigants.
Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County. Learn more about Galler or listen to a podcast of his columns at www.judgegreggaller.com.