Since 1996, former New York family court Judge Judith Sheindlin has been dispensing televised rough justice and tough talk, and has done so to remarkable longevity and popularity; her show, Judge Judy, often beats everything else on daytime TV, including the last seasons of Oprah.
In the beginning, Judge Judy’s trademark take-no-prisoners style came as a welcome relief, an antidote if you will, to the sloppy interpersonal issues and anything goes arguments being played out elsewhere on daytime TV via shows like Oprah, Ricki Lake, and Jerry Springer. Judy’s strict sense of personal responsibility, as well as her sense of right and wrong, helped pave the way for the harsher messages of Dr. Phil (which debuted in 2002), as well as a myriad of other courtroom shows, from Judge Hatchett to Judge Alex. Along with delivering to many a nincompoop the tongue lashing that they so richly deserved, Judy’s verdicts also brought with them a sense of closure and finality (even if this conclusion was only in terms of a monetary judgment), something sorely missing from so many host-and-mike hours that were the norm on the daytime airwaves.
But, now, soon to enter its 16th year in syndication, Judy’s televised courtroom has become every bit the weird mess that it once seemed to be a statement against. And, ironically, the fault lies not with the show’s litigants (the TV courtroom equivalent of talk shows guests) but with its own namesake star.
At one time, Judy’s wrath – which is considerable – was usually reserved only for the true jerks, cheats and deadbeats that appeared before her. But, today, the Judge seems barely tolerant of anyone who dares to step in front of her and her plywood bench. (Granted, she does encounter a startling number of simpletons and sleaze balls and if I had to deal with them day in and day out I would be pretty intolerant too. I often used to wonder why so few eloquent, intelligent people seemed to appear on Judge Judy until I realized that the more articulate among us usually choose to handle our legal affairs privately and locally, not on a Hollywood sound stage.)
From the beginning of every case, the guilt of both parties is just assumed by the Judge; the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is a long-forgotten relic in this TV courtroom. Judy’s contempt and impatience for her litigants/victims begins immediately and knows no bounds. Litigants are destined for a verbal smack down for any number of undeserved reasons – if they dare stutter, stammer or, god forbid, deliver what this Judge deems to be excessive information. Considering the staggering amount of money she earns for this show—reportedly $40 million a year—one would think she could muster up a little more patience and tolerance.
There’s an almost childish logic to much of Judy’s blame game thinking—if YOU got something stolen, YOU should have been more vigilant in keeping watch; if YOU got hit by a car, YOU should have been more careful walking down the street. Yes, except for Byrd, the largely silent bailiff, no one pleases Judy these days.
Judy’s administrating of her cases, too, now seems as rote and set-in-stone as her nasty attitude.
She navigates through most of them with a preset series of mean-spirited, and now sadly tired would-be catch phrases:
“’Um’ is not an answer!”
“That’s not my problem.”
“Shoulda, woulda, coulda!”
Sometimes litigants don’t even get to speak and decisions are issued so quickly it’s like Judy’s on some sort of shot clock. There’s no explanation, no exposition, just Judy’s rapid-fire assessment and dismissal of the case before her. Often, in the post-judgment interviews that participants do in the courtroom’s “hallway,” her litigants seem shell-shocked and tousled, a little confused about what just transpired. Ironically, those who seem to come off best are the ones who treat the entire endeavor like one big goof – those who shake their heads and chuckle quietly at Judy’s actions and flailing about, acknowledging her only as some crazy old lady or Brando in Apocalypse Now. They are just along for the ride.
Increasingly, the Judge is simply dismissing her cases “without prejudice,” thereby allowing the plaintiff before her to re-file their lawsuit in another small claims court and appear before another (and, one assumes, untelevised) judge. She does this seemingly randomly, whenever she doesn’t feel like dealing with the case before her. Oh, that we could all be lucky enough to simply walk away from our jobs whenever we encounter someone we don’t want to deal with.
Meanwhile, Judy’s extremist control of her courtroom and the people before her (“Stand up straight!” “Take your hands out of your pockets!”) which once bespoke of a need for order, now simply suggests someone drunk with their own power or, perhaps, suffering from a severe case of OCD.
Interestingly, the meaner Judge Judy has gotten, the higher the ratings have climbed. It’s another example of the Simon Cowell Factor, further evidence of America’s unending, reality-TV-fed hunger to witness real-life fighting and verbal fireworks.
All this would be well and good if Judy and her brethren were just packaged as entertainment but, whether their producers like it or not, their shows are also presented under the guise of reality and proper legal proceedings. And is this the attitude and environment we want to foster in a courtroom or even a courtroom show? There was a time when the courtroom was, theoretically, a dispassionate place for the settlement of grievances and was, above all things, civil in nature. Thanks to Judge Judy, TV courtrooms are now becoming the home of useless theatrics and sad self-parody.