Image Credit: Robert Hanashiro / USA Today
This week, popular TV star, Judy Sheindlin (“Judge Judy”), announced that her self-titled show is coming to an end after twenty-five seasons. This came as a shock to some, as Judge Judy is currently one of the highest-paid TV personalities, earning $47 million per year for “Judge Judy” alone. Despite her decision to leave CBS and put an end to her series, Judge Judy is embarking on a new project, “Judy Justice,” which is being kept tightly under wraps.
The daytime television series features Judge Judy adjudicating real-life small claim disputes in her “courtroom.” Each opening scene consists of a voice-over, stating: “You are about to enter the courtroom of Judge Judith Sheindlin. The people are real. The cases are real. The rulings are final.” While these are all technically true statements, they are undoubtedly misleading. Many viewers believe that they are watching real-life New York trials. In fact, they are watching an arbitration proceeding that takes place on a studio set in Los Angeles.
Everything done on the production end of the series is intended to create the illusion that viewers buy into – that this is a real judge proceeding over a real trial. However, judges proceeding over real trials could never behave in the manner that Judge Judy is notorious for, as there are strict judicial codes of conduct.
Judge Judy was originally a prosecutor in New York City’s Family Court, who Mayor Koch then appointed to the Family Court bench. Before her retirement, she was the supervising judge over this court. During her years on the bench, she earned a reputation for tough, no-nonsense jurisprudence. She also established a very media-friendly courtroom. In 1993, the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Judge Judy that caught the attention of “60 Minutes,” leading to a segment on the broadcast. “Judge Judy” premiered in national syndication in 1996 – the same year that she left the bench. Thus, though Judge Judy was at one point in time a real judge, she is not acting as such on her television program.
A lot of effort goes into the production of “Judge Judy.” Sixty-five staff researchers sift through national small-claims court motions. Production then directly reaches out to the litigants who have the most television-friendly (i.e., outlandish) stories. Individuals invited to appear on “Judge Judy” defend themselves, but the show pays any judgment that Judge Judy renders, an appearance fee, and travel and lodging. The show even hires extras to fill in the spectator seats of the “courtroom.”
The parties to all disputes heard by Judge Judy must first agree to arbitrate before they appear on the show. Judge Judy gains jurisdiction over the parties through these contracts, which also allow Judge Judy (as well as other on-air syndi-court judges) to have immense discretion over the substantive, procedural, and evidentiary rules that govern the adjudication of the dispute. In an actual small-claims trial, these rules are pre-determined by the jurisdiction in which the court sits.
There are many benefits to arbitration over litigation. It can be considerably cheaper than litigation; the proceedings are more flexible than litigation; and it can be a much more efficient adjudication of a dispute than traditional litigation. By no means am I arguing against the use of alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration. However, these syndi-courts can have detrimental effects on the legal system. Close to ten million viewers watch “Judge Judy” daily. These viewers are all potential jurors in real-life trials. The misleading nature of shows such as “Judge Judy” distorts the way in which the general public understand the legal system and how it works.
Although production wants to amp up the drama for ratings, it can do so without completely misleading its viewers. For example, shows such as “Law and Order” grossly misrepresent the legal system, but viewers know that what they are watching is fiction. Hopefully, “Justice Judy” will feature a more prominent (legible) disclaimer regarding what it is actually depicting.