The Magazine

It’s Still Her Courtroom

The jurisprudence of Judge Judy.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Like many members of America’s “cognitive elite” (I’ve got a string of fancy degrees to prove it), I’ve taken the “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” quiz in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which explores the brainy upper crust’s alienation from the dimmer and poorer lumpenproletariat that lives in trailers and deems crystal meth, not appletinis, its recreational drug of choice. 

Photo of Judge Judy

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My score on Murray’s test was a mere 22—signifying a dense enough elitist bubble encasing my skull to leave me puzzled as to why, if I’m so smart, I’m not rich enough to live in one of those leafy “Super ZIP Codes” (as Murray calls them) where my fellow members of the ruling class make their cavernous homes and send their offspring to those five-figure-tuition private schools that train the little ones to run the country while voting liberal-Democratic, just like their parents.

One question in the quiz stopped me short, however: “Have you ever watched an Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Judge Judy show all the way through?” 

Nah on Oprah and Phil (way beyond my bubble)—but Judge Judy? My favorite show on television, not counting Seinfeld reruns! I’d watch Judge Judy all day long (and as a resident of the District of Columbia I practically can, with a full hour-and-a-half of Judy every weekday on two different local channels), except for the fact that I work at home and feel obliged to spend at least some of my time at my desk. I also can’t take the pile-on, numbingly repetitive commercials at every Judy intermission for goods and services that I don’t want: personal injury lawyers, automobile title loans, replacing your wall-to-wall carpeting with new and different wall-to-wall carpeting, Totino’s frozen pizza (that’s the stuff with the fake cheese), IHOP (the pancake chain that according to Coming Apart is down there with Applebee’s as a “bottom 30 percent” restaurant destination), and most recently and strangely, the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s fundraising Race for the Cure. (Komen’s Machiavellian strategy might be that since the lower orders cling bitterly to religion as well as guns, they might open their wallets to Komen as a recent target of an abortion-focused Planned Parenthood jihad.)

Judge Judy is a wonderful television show—and wildly popular (it’s been the top-rated daytime syndicated program since 2009, when it first surpassed Oprah)—precisely because it affirms the very moral order that Murray argues has been abandoned in principle by the cognitive elite and in practice by those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Judge Judy is Judith Sheindlin, a onetime family court judge in Manhattan transplanted to a simulated courtroom in Hollywood where she “hears”—actually imposes binding arbitration on—an endless stream of “small claims” disputes involving relatively minor sums of money and parties willing to appear before Sheindlin and the cameras without a lawyer. Judge Judy litigation typically involves property vandalism (with the alleged culprit usually being an aggrieved ex-husband, ex-wife, ex-boyfriend, or ex-girlfriend of the victim), bounced checks, welshed-on loans, skipping out of premises without paying the rent, and auto accidents that often feature “open containers” of cheap beer on the floor of at least one of the involved vehicles.

Sheindlin wastes no time, minces few words, and evidences little sympathy toward either plaintiffs or defendants in these disputes. “I don’t believe you!” she yells at a guy who claims that the car he totaled (which belonged to his now-former girlfriend) was mysteriously smashed by an unknown hit-and-run driver in a Walmart parking lot while he was inside the store shopping. “Did you tell your girlfriend this Walmart story?” Sheindlin quizzes the ex-boyfriend, who, according to the ex-girlfriend (suing him over the destroyed vehicle), had earlier told her he crashed the car into a tree after falling asleep at the wheel. “Judgment for the plaintiff for $3,000!” rules Sheindlin, banging down her gavel—and that’s it. As she explains a few seconds later: “If the story doesn’t make sense, it’s not true.”

Judge Judy grew out of a 1993 article about Sheindlin in the Los Angeles Times that was followed by a 60 Minutes profile. Back then Sheindlin was the supervising judge in the Manhattan branch of New York’s family court, a post to which she had been appointed by Mayor Edward Koch in 1986. There, spending ultra-long courtroom hours (she was famous for calling and hearing cases well after her fellow judges had gone home for the night) deciding the fate of abused and battered children as well as teens busted for drugs, muggings, and armed robbery, Sheindlin developed a reputation for acidulous and highly entertaining running commentary on the courtroom behavior of both alleged malefactors and their often underprepared lawyers.

“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!” she famously yelled at a youthful offender who claimed that he had started peddling drugs only after a close relative passed away. “Nobody goes out and sells crack because Grandma died!” shouted the incredulous Sheindlin. “Get a better story!” She titled the first of her five bestselling books Don’t Pee on My Leg. Subtitled America’s Toughest Family Court Judge Speaks Out, it was published in 1997, shortly after Sheindlin left the court for Hollywood.

Sheindlin was capitalizing on a sudden public taste for courtroom reality shows in the wake of the hugely watched O. J. Simpson murder trial in 1995. (She had also offended some highly placed officials in the administration of Koch’s more liberal successor, David Dinkins, who had called for her head after she publicly excoriated a grandmother who had spent “kinship care” funds earmarked for her grandchildren to buy a house in Puerto Rico.) But the precise template for Judge Judy had actually been created, years before, in the wildly popular The People’s Court, featuring a former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, Joseph Wapner. Like Judge Judy, The People’s Court dealt with minor league small claims cases in which the parties agreed to appear without lawyers and that Wapner’s “judgment” would be final, with no appeals allowed. 

In another foreshadowing of Judge Judy, the producers of The People’s Court sweetened the deal for defendants—the people who potentially stood to lose by having Wapner rule against them—by agreeing to pay whatever monetary sums they were assessed, plus expenses. So when Sheindlin lowers her gavel and says, “Judgment for the plaintiff for $3,000!” the studio, not the defendant, forks over that amount—as was the case in Wapner’s television tribunal years ago. Not having to pay a judgment out of one’s own wallet gives defendants a strong financial incentive to have a television judge instead of a real judge hear one’s case, and it guarantees a steady stream of litigants more than eager to air their disputes to the cameras—even if it earns them a Sheindlin tongue-lashing in front of millions of viewers.

The People’s Court ran from 1981 to its 1993 termination, perhaps because audiences got bored with Wapner’s slow-paced and avuncular courtroom demeanor. Judge Judy and her producers learned from that mistake: There is nothing slow-paced about Sheindlin’s performance. Unlike Wapner, who typically called a brief recess before issuing his rulings, Sheindlin makes up her mind and enters judgment on the spot—a modus operandi that, coupled with nimble editing, enables each “trial” before her to last no more than 15 minutes on air, commercial breaks and all. Her hair-trigger brainpower obviously helps: Sheindlin, a Brooklyn native who never lost her accent, graduated from high school at 16 and from law school at 23. She likes to inform litigants who try to pull fast ones: “I didn’t get heah because I’m goah-geous; I got heah because I’m smaht.” (Which is not exactly true: The dainty and impeccably coiffed Sheindlin cuts an elegant figure in her signature lace-collared judicial robe, even at age 69.) 

Judge Judy proved so successful—it now boasts six million viewers a day, beating out Oprah during her last season in 2009-10—that it has spawned numerous knockoffs: Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Cristina’s Court. Even The People’s Court experienced a snappier reincarnation in 1997, presided over serially by Ed Koch, Sheindlin’s husband Gerald (a former New York judge himself), and, since 2001, Marilyn Milian, a onetime circuit court judge in Miami.

Judge Judy has its detractors, chiefly among lawyers who, back in Sheindlin’s family court days, often chafed under her open impatience with lengthy courtroom arguments when she was trying to process up to a hundred cases a day. Philip Kimball, a student at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, won a prize from the American Bar Association in 2004 for an essay criticizing Judge Judy and other gavel shows for “misrepresenting how the justice system works.” Kimball deemed it misleading for the producers to import the trappings of real courtrooms—robes, bailiffs, and so forth—into televised arbitration. He called for “congressional regulation” that would mandate lengthy disclaimers so that audiences wouldn’t get the idea that they were watching actual court proceedings and then feel confused the next time they showed up for jury duty and discovered that most judges can’t crack a joke a minute like Sheindlin. 

Complaints à la Kimball have had their censorious effect. The voiceover at the beginning of Judge Judy declaiming that “the people are real, the cases are real, the rulings are final” no longer adds the climactic “This is her courtroom.” The show does, however, maintain the fiction that Sheindlin continues to operate out of New York, with stock footage of Times Square and Central Park preceding each studio “trial.”

What makes Judge Judy endlessly fascinating isn’t the procession of guys in fauxhawks and/or Todd Palin chin-hair arguing (as in this sample case) that they paid for $2,800 worth of dental work for their streak-haired live-in girlfriend and then got stuck with the bill and want their money back from the GF because she precipitously moved out after the dentistry. (Her counterclaim: “The dentures didn’t even fit—I got screwed.”) Sheindlin has little patience for this sort of heartbreak-hotel narrative: “It wasn’t a loan, it was a gift! If it was a loan, there would be some paperwork.” Bang goes the gavel. Case over. 

Sheindlin’s real interests, manifested by her probing questions in those directions, lie in the social, financial, and amorous disorder that underlies the dispute: the transience of the relationship, the fact that the GF in question had her two children under age 6 (from what? a marriage? a previous fly-by-night setup? two previous fly-by-night setups?) living with her and her denture-generous boyfriend when the bust-up took place. Children whose fathers’ whereabouts are unknown are often at the periphery of Judge Judy cases. So are boyfriends who never seem to be the fathers of those children. When a woman locks her roommate out of the apartment for failing to pay her share of the rent after the first month, and the resulting altercation lands both roomies in jail for the night, one of the bones of contention is a “child’s daybed” (plus an “entertainment center” and a “black leather couch”) that mysteriously disappeared during the fracas. And as might be expected, “My boyfriend was there for the night,” one of the gals testifies. 

All this in a one-bedroom apartment!

The boyfriend’s mother is often a key player in these come-and-go domestic arrangements, typically because her unemployed son and his equally unemployed GF (plus her baby by who knows) might be shacking up in her spare room—or she lends the GF $300 or so to pay for car insurance and then gets stiffed when the GF finds some other male companion. The mother, not having a visible husband herself but owning her home and maybe collecting Social Security, is an archetypal figure in those courtroom dramas, representing the last and most tenuous tie her aimless offspring might have with a previous generation’s respectable world of paying work, financial stability, property ownership, and bills paid on time.

Sheindlin homes in like a GPS on those technically irrelevant—but to her all-important—issues. “You go get a job and support your baby!” she yells at the GF in the spare bedroom, adding as an aside to the studio audience, “You’d be surprised at how quickly people find some kind of work when they have to.” 

“You’re not gonna let that woman take care of your children in the future, are you?” she asks the man who lent his blowsy babysitter his SUV while he was out of town, only to find the vehicle totaled on his return after she let her 20-years-younger boyfriend drive it into a ditch while the two were on a booze-enhanced afternoon outing. 

“Cover up that belly button!” Sheindlin orders a teenage witness flashing a ring-pierced navel between her T-shirt and jeans. “You let your daughter dress like that for court?” she asks the girl’s mother.

Part of the reason for these outbursts is that public humiliation is the only meaningful sanction that Sheindlin can exact from defendants who, thanks to studio incentives, won’t have to pay financially for their derelictions. But another part is clearly genuine outrage. One of her cases involves a 19-year-old who lent her stepfather $2,500 out of her Pell grant (federal tuition assistance to low-income college students) so that he could buy new rims for his car wheels. The stepfather refused to repay the sum on the ground that she was reimbursing him for helping to support her while she was in school. “The government doesn’t put $2,500 on your rims!” retorts an irritated Sheindlin. “That’s not what I spend my money on a Pell grant for! Do you know who’s paying for those rims? I am!” 

Judgment for the plaintiff.

Such Tea Party-esque rhetoric doesn’t mean that Judith Sheindlin is a Rick Santorum social conservative. In 2008 she officiated at the wedding of two gay men after the California supreme court briefly legalized same-sex marriage. But she is clearly concerned about the disintegration of the family and the devastating effect on children of the abdication of personal responsibility that a generous welfare system and an all-around loosening of standards have fostered. 

What is encouraging is that Judge Judy has such a huge and enthusiastic audience. That suggests that, in at least one respect, Charles Murray is wrong. Those socioeconomic bottom-feeders that he writes about may have abandoned their moral moorings. But they continue to resonate to, and long for, the moral order that Judge Judy insists upon enforcing.

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.

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