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What is a Hanging Judge?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hanging judge is a judge infamous for handing out extremely harsh sentences in the courtroom. Historically, this term referred literally to a judge who frequently imposed a sentence of death by hanging on convicted criminals, but today the term is used more generally to talk about judges known for being very harsh. While many nations have sentencing guidelines intended to keep sentences within a reasonable range, judges do have some discretion, and they can choose to impose the maximum penalty in a case if they want to do so.

This term is often used pejoratively, particularly to refer to judges overseeing show trials. Such trials are assembled to follow the letter of the law and create the illusion of justice, making people think that defendants had an opportunity to get a fair hearing, but in fact, the results of such trials are foregone conclusions. Infamous examples of show trials could be seen in the Soviet Union under the dictator Joseph Stalin, where hanging judges sentenced convicted criminals, many of whom were Stalin's political enemies, to death.

Hanging judges are known for always selecting the maximum sentence when a person is convicted in court, without offering leeway to people who experienced special circumstances or complex cases. People facing trials in front of a hanging judge may attempt to get the trial moved or handled by a different judge, out of fear of the consequences if they are convicted. Attorneys are usually familiar with the approaches taken by different judges in their regions and will work with their clients to achieve the best possible outcome; in a case with a hanging judge, for example, an attorney might recommend taking a plea bargain rather than trying the case in court.

Hanging judges are not acting outside the law, and some people feel they are just, if harsh, in how they apply sentences. Like other judges, they are interested in protecting society from criminal activity, and in sending clear messages to people contemplating crimes. People in their courtrooms may receive a perfectly fair trial under a hanging judge, and such judges may in fact be very scrupulous about trial procedure in the interests of keeping the court fair and trial conditions reasonable.

Part of planning for trial usually includes a discussion of the judge's history and past performance in similar cases. An attorney considers this during the jury selection process and when developing a case and selecting witnesses. The goal is to win the case, if possible, but attorneys dealing with a hanging judge may also try to seed the trial with information designed to soften the view of the defendant, with the goal of possibly getting a less severe sentence if there is a conviction.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Vincenzo — On Apr 12, 2014

@Markerrag -- one of the problems with hanging judges has to do with the plea bargaining process. In a criminal matter, that is the judge who is pushing the defense to accept a plea bargain rather than go to trial. When judges have a tendency to push for plea bargains rather than go to trial, the prosecuting attorney has an opportunity to offer deals with harsher sentences than they might otherwise. And that is a real problem when you consider that most matters don't go to trial -- they are pleaded out of court in advance.

By Markerrag — On Apr 12, 2014

@Logicfest -- a jury can help curb some abuses, but remember that the judge is the one who delivers the instructions to the jury (yes, attorneys are involved and all that, but the judge is typically the final authority on what instructions to give). In your scenario, what if the jury didn't have an instruction informing the members they could find the defendant guilty of manslaughter instead of first degree murder. Without that instruction, will a jury go for first degree murder or turn the defendant loose?

But, under that scenario, the defendant might have a very good shot of appealing the case and winning because the proper, lesser charge wasn't included in the instructions.

By Logicfest — On Apr 11, 2014

One of the reasons we have juries is to curb the abuses of so-called hanging judges, isn't it? It is true that judges generally determine the sentence after a jury renders a guilty verdict, but those jurors are given the opportunity to find someone guilty of lesser counts.

For example, someone might be up for capital murder, but a jury returns a verdict of not guilty on that count but finds the defendant guilty of manslaughter -- a lesser charge with less severe penalties.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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