Evelle J. Younger: TV Judge Who Became Attorney General
is the second in a series of 55-Plus columns on courtroom reality
shows. To read the previous column on the subject, click
Fifty years before Judge Judy went on the air 24 before Joseph Wapner began deciding cases on Peoples Court there was a real-life member of the Los Angeles Municipal Court portraying a judge on television in simulated court proceedings. His local show, Traffic Court, became a huge success in Los Angeles shortly after it began on June 7, 1957, serving as the stimulus for a bevy of such shows on the networks and in syndication.
Chances are, even if you did not live in Los Angeles then, youve heard of the man who played the judge. It was Evelle J. Younger.
This was the same Evelle Younger who went on to become district attorney of Los Angeles County (1964-1971), attorney general of California (1971-79), and the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 1978. He died in 1989.
Youngers son, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eric Younger, recalled:
It was the first show that featured unscripted, actual-case information.
Though it did bear a similarity to a Du Mont show from years earlier, They Stand Accused, those shows did not stem from real incidents. It was different from later shows such as Wapners Peoples Court (and its seemingly endless imitators) in the sense that actual parties were not there to have their disputes adjudicated. Actors were used to play the defendants and witnesses on Traffic Court. But, the son pointed out, there was no rehearsal of the show, only a walk-through.
There was no written dialog ever, he stressed.
The initial purpose of Traffic Court, presented at first without commercials, was to promote safe driving. While his father regarded Traffic Court as educational and a public service, Eric Younger commented, I dont know if Judge Judy would see it that way with respect to her own show.
He said he perceives that the display of a zinger personality is the goal of TV judges nowadays. While he said he would not describe his fathers personality as colorless, the former judge reflected: I dont think he was trying to charm anybody.
Eric Younger sized up his fathers TV role simply:
He was pretty much there playing a Municipal Court judge which is what he did so he played it pretty well.
It was quite successful, retired Eric Younger said of the program. Thats why Chevy picked it up.
When the Southern California Chevrolet Dealer Association assumed sponsorship of the show, its status as a public service program fell into question.
Somebody complained that it was not appropriate for a sitting judge to be on a commercially sponsored television program, Eric Younger recounted.
Evelle Younger, unlike Dinah Shore, was not called upon to blow a kiss to the audience at the end of the show and launch into a chorus of See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet. Nor did he turn to the camera after a defendant presented his or her case and announce: Ill bring you my verdict in a moment. But first, friends, lets talk about the sleek looks of the 1958 Chevy Impala.
Nonetheless, Younger submitted an inquiry to the Ethics Committee of the Conference of California Judges (now known as the California Judges Association). As Eric Younger tells it:
The Ethics Committee said, Nah, we dont like the looks of it, so he quit [the show].
That was, of course, not the last that was heard of Evelle Younger.
For whatever reason, the thumbnail biographies Younger used in his successful campaigns for district attorney and attorney general, and in his ill-fated effort to wrest the governorship from Jerry Brown, made no mention of his role on Traffic Court or his 1948-49 hosting of another television show, Armchair Detective.
During the time when Younger appeared on Traffic Court from June, 1957 to April, 1958 the show, which was live, was not seen outside of Los Angeles. But that changed shortly after Younger resigned.
Presided over by his successor, UCLA Law Professor Edgar Allan Jones Jr., the new Traffic Court was aired on the ABC network from June 18, 1958 until March 30, 1959.
Then came Day in Court and the nighttime version, Accused, both presided over by Jones, and spin-off, Morning Court. And, there was a spate of imitations.
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Next week: Theres disorder in the court when Sandy Koufax winds up appearing before a TV judge.
"55-Plus" column is written especially for those over the age of
55, by a veteran California journalist who is himself eligible for the club.
Roger M. Grace has written and edited newspapers for more than four decades,
and has been a lawyer for more than three.