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It’s Still Her Courtroom

The jurisprudence of Judge Judy.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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.

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