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 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 characterization 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 as all courtrooms are 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.
As Ms. Alanis Morrissette might say, “isn’t this ironic?”
“Ironic” (adjective): happening in the opposite way to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this.
I was recently approached by the producers of a new TV-Judge show to be a TV-Judge. I was getting ready to leave the office when I found a note on my desk that read “call __________ at Big Fish productions.” Everyone else had already left so I couldn’t ask the logical question, “hey, what’s this?” I naturally assumed it was part of some elaborate prank by one or more of the usual suspects in my life capable of such shenanigans. I have omitted the caller’s name to protect the innocent, but because her actual name sounds like a name somebody might make up, I almost didn’t return the call. It turns out she was a real, and very nice person, who wanted me to be on a new show on the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) network called Court Night Live.
I had lots of questions: “Would this be really real or just reality TV real?”; “What kind of cases would be heard?”; “Who are the litigants and how do they get selected?”; “Is it going to be like Jerry Springer in a courtroom?”; and, most obviously, “Why me?”
I liked her answers. The goal of Court Night Live is to be as close to the real thing as possible. The litigants agree to have their real disputes get resolved for real by real judges in real time LIVE on TV from faux courtrooms set up in Chicago, Philadelphia and Tampa. There is a moderator who, in an NFL Red Zone kind of way, switches between courtrooms depending on what’s happening, and the people who are watching get to comment and vote on how they think the cases should be resolved (none of which the judges will see or are bound by). I was intrigued. I thought about it, cleared it with the Judicial Conduct Commission and then, and only then, said “ok … I’ll do it.”
The deciding factor for me in agreeing, and apparently the deciding factor for them in approaching me, to be a part of the Court Night Live project, is our mutual understanding and belief that: (1) to the extent that what happens in a courtroom is entertaining (whether in reality or on reality TV), any drama, tragedy or comedy has to be a byproduct of the process, not the goal; and, (2) any real judge who aspires to be a TV-judge probably shouldn’t be either one. So, “yes,” Alanis, it is ironic that that someone who has raged against the TV-judge machine should agree to be a judge on TV. It’s also ironic that the producers of a TV-judge show, to their credit, picked a guy like that to be one of their TV-judges. Stay tuned. It should be interesting.
*** Court Night Live is scheduled to begin airing at 9:00 p.m. EST on August 10, 2022. ***