Marc Dittenhoefer

Judge Not, Lest Ye Get Ratings

Recently I had the opportunity to watch an unhealthy dose of daytime TV. Though much is as I remember it from my youth, it seems that every region of the country now has at least one Judge with a Courtroom show running sometime, somewhere, somehow!

This trend has been in the making for quite some time, it is true: Joseph N. Welch, the attorney who won admiration during the Army/McCarthy hearings by confronting Sen. Joseph McCarthy with the now-famous "have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last", portrayed the crusty yet lovable Michigan Circuit Judge in Otto Preminger's 1959 classic "Anatomy of a Murder"! During the Watergate Hearings in the '70s, when all America was watching all day long, one Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who served on his state's Supreme Court from 1948-54, catapulted to national attention:. And of course, lawyer shows and courtroom dramas have been a TV staple since its very beginning, though of course it was nearly always fiction.

The first "crossover" star was Judge Joseph Wapner, an appointee to the L.A. Superior Court in 1959 where he served for 20 years. After he retired he presided over the original "The People's Court", bringing real people with real (small) cases to television. Unflappable, mirthless, un-hip, and sober as a Judge, Wapner stolidly explained basic principles of law to audiences (with trusty bailiff Rusty at his side) for 12 years, always taking pains to speak rationally, civilly, logically and in measured tones. That show went off-air in '93.

In '96 "The People's Court" returned, this time with firebrand Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin. The same no-nonsense, not very litigant-friendly demeanor that kept her on an appointive bench in NYC seemed to hit a responsive nerve with viewers. To this day she remains ever available - though never approachable - twice daily on her own fantastically remunerative show.

For a few years, "The People's Court" searched for an appropriate replacement, starting with NYC's favorite "ham"- former Mayor Ed Koch, who actually never was a Judge. (Politics was his passion, not the law.) Later, Judy's husband Gerald (elected to the Supreme Court of Bronx County, 1982-99) filled her seat on TV from '99-2001.

To this day, "Judge Judy" is probably the most well known judge - TV or otherwise - in the USA, though she is not the only celeb! Judge Andrew Napolitano, of the original "Power of Attorney" show, served on the New Jersey Superior Court until 1997, when he left to host his show. "Judge Mills Lane", a professional prizefight referee, sat as a Washoe County, Nevada, District Court Judge until a debilitating stroke ended his public career as master of the homespun tough-love put-down in 2002. "Texas Justice" from the Lone Star State showcases Judge Larry Joe Doherty - a legal malpractice lawyer from Houston with a "national reputation" in legal ethics, a quick-draw on the gavel and a cowboy saying for every occasion. (How ethical it is to leave the impression that one is a judge when one actually isn’t is, apparently, an open question.)

The success of these shows up to that point ushered in a consideration of demographics to the equation and daytime television watchers became at long last aware that we have African-American Judges in real life! Judge Joe Brown, born in D.C.- raised in South Central L.A., became a lawyer and then a Judge in Memphis, Tennessee, where he also learned how to speak with a long slow drawl while spouting avuncular aphorisms that may, or may not, have anything to do with what is going on at the time.

Judge Glenda Hatchett from Georgia got her own show (along with probably the best judicial wardrobe and hair stylist), as did street-wise Judge Gregg Mathis from Detroit - apparently the youngest judge ever elected in that state's history. His mantra, as a former gang member who had done time in prison, is that he got a second chance and now he "gets to give second chances". (That must have been some election!) Judge Lynn Toler ("Divorce Court") from Cleveland, an experienced and apparently quite savvy mediator, won election as an Administrative Judge in Municipal Court. She took over the show from Californian Mablean Ephraim, whose occasional memorable lapses from proper decorum back up what my internet research seems to show: but for her title on this "reality" show, she's not a judge at all so far as I can tell.

Hispanic America is likewise well represented. Judge Alex E. Ferrer, a Cuban-born Florida Criminal Court Judge and former cop is one of the most well spoken (and handsome) people on daytime TV. Judge "Christina's Court" Perez, born in NYC of Colombian parents and raised in California, proudly proclaims that she "takes law into her own heart", whatever that means. (Her website does not indicate whether she is really a judge when not on TV: it does, however, come complete with ads for salsa music and her upcoming book of wise Spanish sayings from her madre.) Judge Maria Lopez - of Cuban descent from Boston – has not one, but TWO catchphrases: "If you can't stand the heat get out of the courtroom" and "Justice will be served spicy." 'scuse me?

And, then there is the current reigning host of "The People's Court", and, as of now, the most popular of them all: Judge Marilyn Milian. Born in Queens, NY, of Cuban lineage she moved to Miami where Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the bench. Her tag line is "The hottest judge on TV". She's also probably the brightest: would that she chose to play that up a bit more!

I wonder how one of the few callings once thought to be above the roar of the greasepaint and the approval of the crowd has become such a staple of mass entertainment. And I also wonder about those judges we never see on TV: those who haven’t been found to be telegenic enough, or entertaining enough, or in-your-face enough to warrant their own 15 minutes of fame with a once-in-a-lifetime payday attached. Unlike their TV counterparts, who all got great salary bumps for leaving the bench for the airwaves, New York’s tried and true real judiciary hasn’t gotten a raise this century. Yet they stay the course.

They can be ridiculed in Op Ed cartoons, picketed in their Courthouses, excoriated in editorials and tarred with the misdeeds of their family or friends or of the tiny percentage of their number that actually do misbehave, yet sitting Judges are not allowed to fight back: they must sit and take it, and go to work each day solving everybody else’s problems. And in return, they get paid a salary that, in many cases, is less than big-time white-she law firms pay for a summer law-school associate!

As I said, I’m not sure why these shows are so popular with the public, but I know why they’re a hit with the Judges!

Marc Dittenhoefer: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:24 AM, Mar 22, 2007 in
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