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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 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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