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.