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Cameras in Court

Judge Wapner And The People's Court

Before televised trials became commonplace, there was The People's Court. This highly popular syndicated TV program ran from 1981 through 1993 and featured retired judge Joseph A. Wapner, of the California Superior Court. Millions of viewers tuned in daily to watch Wapner hear actual cases from small-claims court. The parties agreed to submit to his judgment of their sometimes petty, and often quite funny, disputes, which included claims for fender benders, complaints about plumbing jobs, and even a plaintiff who sued when a liquor store that had sold him a flat can of beer refused to give him a fresh one. The ground-breaking The People's Court probably did more than any other program before it to open the way for the reality programming tide that swept civil and criminal trials onto television. It also popularized understanding of at least one kind of courtroom process, that of small claims.

The genius of The People's Court was its verisimilitude. The program operated by the rules of California's small-claims courts: no lawyers were allowed, aggrieved parties represented themselves, and the damage limit was $1,500. To find participants for the show, Ralph Edwards Productions combed court dockets for cases that were essentially matters of principle and then invited the parties to appear on the program. On the show, as in real life, both parties told their sides of the story to the judge, whose decision was final. The show's 12-year run featured more than 5,000 cases.

The affably grumpy, no-nonsense Wapner certainly knew his profession. The former president of the California Judges Association had earned degrees in philosophy and the law from the University of Southern California in the late 1940s, had practiced law for a decade, and had tried civil and criminal cases for twenty years before retiring from the bench in 1979. His TV rulings were commonsensical, swift, and just. The victim of a bum can of beer, for instance, was awarded eighty cents. In another case, one man in a romantic love triangle had bitten off the ear of another rather than give up the woman in question; Wapner awarded the one-eared man $1,500 for pain and suffering. As part of the show's terms, the production company paid all awards, and the aggrieved parties merely agreed to call it a day after the judge passed sentence.

The effect of The People's Court has often been debated. The show may have encouraged litigiousness, according to such critics as noted attorney ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ and Judge Abner J. Mikva, of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It is undoubtedly true that the use of small-claims courts increased in the 1980s after the show began airing. Others found in Wapner a traditional model of fairness: in a 1989 essay in the University of Chicago Law Review, Justice ANTONIN SCALIA, of the U.S. Supreme Court, described Wapner as a descendant of Solomon and Louis IX of France. Wapner himself saw the program as educational.

To the public, which made The People's Courtthe fifth-highest-rated syndicated show in the mid-1980s, Wapner became the best-known judge in the United States. A 1989 Washington Postpoll found that fewer than 10 percent of respondents knew the name of Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, of the U.S. Supreme Court, but more than half could identify Wapner. Wapner published the book A View from the Benchin 1987. After the show's cancellation in 1992, he served as president of the board of directors of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish cultural organization in California.

As tastes in daytime television changed in the 1990s, Wapner's descendants reflected the times. The era of no-holds-barred reality TV had dawned, and into it in 1996 barreled Judge Judy. If the betrayed and the broken-hearted went on The Jerry Springer Show to smash chairs, Judge Judy was where they settled their legal differences for the price of a tongue-lashing from retired New York City judge Judy Sheindlin. Averaging 9 million viewers per day, Sheindlin rarely failed to remind disputing parties of their shortcomings.

The huge success of Judge Judy spawned competition. In fact, a brief revival of The People's Court between 1998 and 1999 featured former New York City mayor Ed Koch hamming it up at the gavel. Similarly, Divorce Court, originally a 1960s show with actors, reappeared with real couples ready to untie the knot on camera. Other shows, such as Judge Mills Lane, covered the familiar territory of small claims cases being tried by humorous grumps.

The 2000s breathed fresh air into the format with African American judges and new thematic approaches. Divorce Court and Judge Mathis featured attorney Mablean Ephriam and former state judge Greg Mathis, respectively. As a former teenage dropout and gang member who became a Michigan judge, Mathis promoted the theme of self-redemption while citing his life as an example for young offenders. Following their lead was noted former Georgia juvenile court judge Glenda Hatchett, whose Judge Hatchett also sought to balance entertainment with a social message.


Frankel, Bruce. 2000. "Past Imperfect; In re jurisprudence, TV's Judge Mathis Had Two Good Teachers: Law School and Jail." People (October 2).

Holston, Noel. 1999. "Fall TV Preview." Minneapolis Star Tribune (September 13).

"Judge Glenda Hatchett Bio." 2003. Available online at <www.sonypictures.com/tv/shows/judgehatchett/about4.phtml> (accessed on November 20, 2003).

"Judge Mills Lane TV Show Canceled." 2001. AP Online (April 11).

Zurawik, David. 1999. "Tough Justice: TV Judges Deal in Black and White." Newsday (April 21): B3.


Small Claims Court; Television.

Additional topics

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