Seven Courtroom Shows Appear on TV’s Fall Docket
This is the 20th in a series of 55-Plus columns on courtroom reality shows. To read the previous column on the subject, click here.
the current television courtroom shows makes one nostalgic for the
days when the likes of UCLA Law Professor Edgar Allan Jones and retired
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner were presiding.
Jones’s “Day in Court” and Wapner’s “The People’s Court” each had an educational, as well as entertainment, aspect. The shows now on the air are aimed solely at grabbing ratings — and any resemblance to actual legal proceedings is purely coincidental.
There are, with stations’ embarking on a new fall schedule, seven syndicated mock-courtroom programs on television. These programs are farces posing as reality, marked by disorderly conduct on the part of “litigants” and, on most of the shows, on the part of the “judge,” as well.
The formats do not include participation by lawyers — which is understandable in the simulated small claims proceedings, but not in the two supposed family law courts. Actual disputants squabble, often being free to air any dirty laundry they want to, “relevancy” being a concept foreign to these depictions.
The depictions of court proceedings are grossly distorted. What actually occurs in a courtroom is far more civil and restrained.
Here’s what’s being shown:
• “Judge Judy,” 5 p.m., Channel 31. It was the success of this show, launched in 1986, that inspired the spate of imitators. The show is, itself, an imitator, having copied the format of “The People’s Court” which aired, with Wapner as judge, from 1981 to 1993. Former New York Judge Judy Sheindlin presides over small claims cases — actually, binding arbitrations of disputes initially filed in an actual court.
Sheindlin is shrill, snippy, and unconscionably demeaning. “You’re a liar!” she bellowed at one litigant in a show I recently viewed. “No,” the man responded, calmly. She roared:
“Listen to me, sir. In your best day, you are not as smart and as clever as I am on my worst day. Do you understand that, Mr. Ryan?”
In handling another case, she began leading a party/witness, who presumed to add a point of his own. She admonished:
“Pay attention to everything. Don’t anticipate to where I’m going, Mr. Fisher, because you’re not smart enough. Do you understand? Do you understand? You’re not smart enough, OK?”
• “Divorce Court,” 1 p.m., 2 p.m., Channel 40. Los Angeles family law attorney Mablean Ephriam runs the noisiest courtroom on television. Sometimes she and both parties are talking at once. Even when she’s the only one talking, it’s noisy. Since a make-believe judge can’t grant divorces, she basically handles support issues, with plenty of opportunity for each party to make public wide-ranging allegations about the conduct of the other. Those appearing on the show get paid for making fools of the other party — and themselves.
• “Judge Joe Brown,” 2 p.m., Channel 31. Presiding over small claims cases is a former Memphis, Tenn. judge. He was a sitting judge when the show started in 1998, but was pressured into retiring based on the amount of time he was away from judicial duties while taping shows in Los Angeles. Lacking self-control, he’s arrogant and bombastic. Rejecting a plaintiff’s claim recently, he ruled by shouting: “You get the devil out of my courtroom! That’s the end of it! Case dismissed.”
• “Judge Hatchett,” 2:30 a.m., Channel 31. Glenda Hatchett, a former judge in Georgia, is serious and composed. But an appropriate title for the show would be “Sex Court” (though the Playboy channel already used it). That is to say, there’s preoccupation with sexual relations. The show can get silly. For example, a mother came to court to complain about her teenage son being a sex addict, routinely engaging in unprotected sex. Hatchett sentenced him to a “reality check.” He was required to wear garb for 24 hours with a 30-lb. ball in the front, to learn what it’s like to be pregnant. On some shows, results of DNA tests are revealed.
• “Judge Mathis,” 2 a.m., Channel 58. The star of this one-hour show is Greg Mathis, a one-time gang member who went into law, was elected to a judgeship in Detroit in 1995, and resigned his post to become a TV judge in 1999. He’s loud, cocky and sarcastic — his sarcasm sometimes taking the form of mockery. His demeanor is not that of a judge, but a stand-up comic.
• “The People’s Court,” 1 p.m., Channel 31. Marilyn Milian, a former Florida judge, is another Judge Judy. She shouts. She demeans. “I’m not going to believe a word he says even if his tongue came notarized,” she said of one witness.
• “Texas Justice,” 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., Channel 40. The show ought to be labeled “Jackass Justice.” Houston attorney Larry Joe Doherty spews smart alec wisecracks and strains to be folksy. He addresses parties by their first names. Doherty runs the courtroom as if he were the host of a talk show. And a rowdy courtroom it is, with members of the audience reacting to what parties say by laughing, sighing, hooting and groaning. At the end of each proceeding, they give “Judge Larry Joe” a standing ovation.
Various fictional courts have gone into operation following the success of “Judge Judy,” and subsequently closed. They are:
• “Judge Mills Lane” (with Lane now touting an attorney referral service in TV commercials and on placards on the backs of buses);
• “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court” (the worthiest of the recent series);
• “Curtis Court” (presided over by former Riverside Deputy District Attorney James E. Curtis III, now living in Nevada and suspended from the State Bar of California for non-payment of bar dues);
• “Moral Court” (a show with commentator Larry Elder which inquired into which disputant was morally right); and
• “Power of Attorney” (featuring various well-known lawyers, including O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden, as advocates).
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Next week: a look at TV’s black judges.
The "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.
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Last Updated 10/28/03