CURSE YOU, JUDGE JUDY!!
One of the most enjoyable things I get to do as a judge in the Facebook/Twitter era we live in is to provide a unique photo-op for kids visiting the courtroom by letting them be the judge. Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks. Tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox love to have their picture taken sitting on the bench wearing, more often than not blanketed by, my robe – and no I don’t wear a “gown” … I wear the required uniform.
Shortly after I started doing this, I noticed something interesting and more than a little troubling that the aforementioned kids from one to ninety-two all had in common. Regardless of whether they were there to watch their lawyer mom or dad argue a case to the jury or to watch their defendant mom be judged by a jury, the kids were all doing exactly the same thing. Once their initial surprise, excitement and self-consciousness had subsided, they would invariably make the meanest, angriest face imaginable and start banging the gavel like John Bonham banging a drum. Where does that come from? How and why is that their first reaction to being the judge? What do they think judges do? Who’s responsible for that perception?
Given the extremely small number people who are judges compared to the extremely large number people who aren’t, it’s safe to assume that relatively few people actually know, have regular contact with, or have ever even seen an actual judge. In the absence of first-hand experience, most people’s image of judgedom is informed by what they’ve read, seen on TV, or watched in YouTube video clip compilations of whacky courtroom chaos. I wrote down the first twelve (12) fictional judges I could think of to get an idea of how they were portrayed. Here’s who I came up with:
Yikes! As it turns out, judges are not very popular in popular culture. With the possible exceptions of wise old Judge Taylor (who appointed Atticus Finch to represent Tom Robinson in an effort to get him the fairest trial possible - but who also tended to fall asleep during trial, regularly put his feet up on the bench, chewed up and spit out cigars and cleaned his fingernails with a pocket knife in the courtroom), the stoically reserved but thoughtful, loving and droll Judge Hardy (who hasn’t been seen on film since Andy Hardy Comes Home in 1958), and maybe Judge Bone (whose extreme crankiness and fierce temper were somewhat tempered by his well-honed common sense of justice), these characters can most charitably be described as an unhealthy combination of despot, crack-pot, half-wit, burn-out, goofball, and political hack.
It’s worth noting that two out of the twelve names I came up with are cartoon characters, and another one is just a guy named “Judge”. There were others who came to mind but whose names I could not remember at all. There’s the in-the-pocket-of-the-mob judges in The Untouchables and Batman Begins. There’s the three judges from John Grisham’s The Brethren, who hatch a scheme while in federal prison together to blackmail wealthy closeted gay men. And then there’s whoever it is I have been seeing lately in promotional spots for a television series called - that’s right - Bad Judge. Yikes!
But no matter how un-awe inspiring these un-real judges may be, my guess is that the degree to which they have shaped the general public’s perception of the judiciary is next to nothing when compared to the (mis)impression made by the pseudo-real judges of daytime and late-night television. Judges who can - do. Judges who can’t apparently move to LA and get their own syndicated fake court show. The condescending, often combative, but always disrespectful manner in which Judge Judy, Judge Brown, Judge Karen, Judge “Extreme” Akim, and comedian/game show host cum Judge Steve %#*&ing Harvey, et al, dispense TV justice may make for good television, but it makes for bad reality.
I am convinced that the cumulative effect of their charactureization of the courtroom has had a corrosive effect on the public’s perception of how judges are supposed to act and interact with lawyers and litigants. If the only judges a first-time litigant ever saw prior to coming into a courtroom were unreality-TV judges, then it’s easy to understand how freaked out (s)he might be in anticipation of the belittlement and public humiliation they’re likely expecting from the real judge handling their case. Alternatively, it emboldens them to act up and act out figuring that all courtrooms are just a stage and all the judges and litigants merely players.
I’m not sure what real-life judges can do to overcome this growing public relations nightmare. If nothing else, we should definitely be aware and wary of the danger of allowing life to imitate schlock. We should make sure that we don’t live down to those low/false expectations by being on time, being prepared, and being nice to the real people who appear before us. It may not be enough, but if we do this often enough for long enough then I hold out the hope that someday some snap-chatting little kid will plop down in my chair, peer out from under the folds of my way too big for him or her robe and actually smile for the camera.
Numbered among the many problems with (not to be confused with the problems caused by) made for TV-court, is that to the extent that what happens in a courtroom is entertaining, any drama, tragedy or comedy has to be a byproduct of the process, never the goal. Anyway, that's what I told the producers of Court Night Live when they reached out to me about becoming one of the six real pretend judges on this most recent take on telecourt to be broadcast on the A&E network. I had lots of questions, but as they explained/promised me, the idea was to have real litigants agree to have their real disputes get resolved for real by real judges in real time LIVE on TV with the real people watching having the chance to comment on who they feel should "win". Although I firmly believe that any real judge who aspires to be a TV judge probably shouldn't be either, I was intrigued. It sounded like a pretty good idea. It wasn't.
I plan on writing at greater length about the comic misadventure that followed, but for now suffice it to say that it was a disaster. The two aforementioned producers, one of whom worked on the very popular Live PD program and the other who came from ... yup ... the even more popular Jerry Spinger Show, were brought in to combine the best of both shows into a single even better even more successful show. They couldn't, but that didn't stop them from trying too hard. It was terrible. Not terrible in a you can't not watch it kind of way- terrible as in unwatchable. The worst. So bad that it got cancelled after just eight each-one- surprisingly- worse-than-the-one-before episodes. The good news is that it got cancelled before it was my turn to dole out the TV justice (although I do appear in the opening credits for about six seconds- just long enough to say: "tell me what happened", arguably the only useful and intelligent thing said by anyone during the entire mercifully short run of the show.
I thought the show was going to be different and that I could make a difference by treating the people and their problems with respect and explaining to them why their case had to be decided how I had to decide it (i.e. the facts and the law). I gave it my best shot during the pilot episode when I helped the Plaintiff understand why she couldn't recover damages for the emotional distress she believes her poodle suffered after the "funky" trim the Defendant was supposed to give her turned out, as the Plaintiff saw it, so funking awful. The Defendant was likewise mollified once she understood why she couldn't recover on her defamation counterclaim against the Plaintiff's for posting her opinion (and photographic evidence) about the Defendant's unhandywork and being charged $1,500 for it. It wasn't what I thought I was signing up for, but as we say in the South when we don't know what else to say, it "sure was somethin'".
[NOTE: I have inserted this short pause to allow you the time necessary to snort, chuckle and shake your head as you take in the enormity of the inanity of it all - believe me, I know.]
I think the best way to undo the damage that all the Judge Judys of the TV world have done is to give people the chance to watch the justice get made for real. Shortly before I retired in 2022, the broadcast technology had become simple and inexpensive enough to allow anyone and everyone to watch whatever's happening inside the courtroom from outside the courtroom. So, I created a YouTube channel to make it so. I didn't know if people would tune in or not. I thought it was enough that they could if they wanted to. If they did, however, my hope was that they would be surprised by what they see. A courtroom full of people trying to resolve a problem they couldn't resolve otherwise or elsewhere presided over by a judge trying his best to help them do so. Now that's entertainment!