WASHINGTON, October 15, 2016 – Perhaps the would-be television judgeship hopes of former Governor of Alaska and former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin rested on her wider fame than that of Judy Sheindlin, the mega-star, super-rich television courtroom celebrity of Judge Judy.
But audiences failed to respond favorably to Palin Rules, a reality courtroom show that hatched its pilot in 2016, but never made it to the airwaves.
Notwithstanding that failure, America loves what is believed to be real-life and live courtroom drama. Beginning in 1981 with The People’s Court, starring Judge Joseph Wapner, at least thirty-one daytime courtroom shows have made it to television, all airing the foibles and legal issues of everyday people who agree in advance to make those matters public for a judge to decide.
The cases are generally small, involving money less than five thousand dollars ($5,000.00), and they focus on minor legal disputes, such as landlord-tenant disputes, consumer transactions gone awry, and petty theft.
Judge Judy is by far the most popular such show thus far, making Sheidlin monstrously rich as a result. In 2015 Judge Judy signed a renewal deal for the program, earning herself a handsome $47 million a season for 52 days of work a year.
Other legal shows that achieved an “I’ve heard of that” level of popularity among Americans TV fans include Judge Hatchett, Judge Faith, Family Court, Divorce Court, Judge Mills Lane, and Judge Joe Brown.
Some courtroom reality shows have had interesting names. During their respective runs, they, too were familiar to many, including Sex Court, Guy Court, Celebrity Justice, Kid’s Court, and We The People (starring attorney Gloria Allred).
It seems, every year, a new court show pops up. Some survive, others only last for a short time. Nonetheless, as we approach nearly four decades during which the pleasure of observing your next door neighbors’ mishegoss – Yiddish for craziness, senseless behavior or activity – has been readily available via cable TV channels, Americans today can happily sit on the sofa and watch these shows for over 1000 hours every year.
The enduring popularity of courtroom reality shows is largely because Americans absolutely love gossip. In addition, these shows can be appealingly salacious as well. By 1998, just two years after Judge Judy began to air, Judy’s show vaulted ahead of Oprah in the ratings. In 2008, three years before Oprah retired, Judy was still the queen of daytime television and still ahead of Oprah in the viewership race. In that year, Judy averaged 6.6 million viewers per day with her numbers increasing, while Oprah averaged 6.4 million.
Regarding the notion of reality, these courtroom “reality shows” are not and were not “real” trials. Further, they are not and were not recorded in real courtrooms, despite the extensive advertising and despite the opening sequence of Judge Judy that proclaims: “The cases are real. The people are real. The rulings are final.”
Most of these shows are filmed and produced in Hollywood, next to or in the buildings of the major studios. Audiences are picked from crowds at and around the studios. The audience is told to talk between cases so that the court officer’s “Order in the Court” admonition has more impact. Attractive audience members are seated in the front rows.
While the shows claim that in order to appear, interested parties should make contact via a show’s website or provided telephone number, most of the eventual participants are sought out and then approached by the show’s producers who investigate promising small claims court cases across the nation and then send letters to the adversaries whose cases seem TV-friendly or interesting.
Producers frequently look for cases involving individuals with prior relationships or relationship issues – mother/daughter, father/son, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. – because they engage the audience on an emotional level through the backstory of the broken relationship.
Beyond their entertainment, it should be emphasized once again that these shows are not real trials. They are arbitration hearings, where the participants agree in advance to let the individual sitting in the judge’s chair decide the outcome.
An arbitration procedure is one in which everything (except the outcome) is agreed to prior to the hearing, making arbitration much different from and far simpler than a court trial. Arbitration has relaxed evidence rules, can be conducted in virtually any manner determined by the arbitrator. It is always faster and less expensive than a court trial, where evidence rules must be obeyed by the judge and where the judge is bound by procedural and conduct requirements as well.
An arbitrator can be anyone agreed to by the parties. Judy was in fact a real judge in the 1980s prior to her show, something that gave both her and her show strong credibility from the outset. Sarah Palin, for her part, was never a lawyer, nor was she ever a judge. Aside from her time in office, she had no legal experience. Given Palin’s name recognition, producers felt appointing her as the “judge” on a new reality series wouldn’t matter. But it did. Audiences for the pilot said she “did not resonate because she had no legal training.”
Rats! Maverick: zero. The people: 2.
Serving, then, as arbitrators with virtually no procedural rules codes of conduct to observe, TV reality show judges are free to make fun of, yell at, joke with and comment to the participants in any manner that’s designed to entertain. Television, after all, is entertainment. And, given her lengthy and successful track record, Judge Judy is by all measures a phenomenal entertainer.
Court television does not always result in genuine justice, of course. Nor does it teach us lessons about what the actual law is, or should be for two key reasons:
First, because the participants sign agreements in advance that the decisions will be final, they don’t know they can sometimes go to court to try to obtain a better result with real judges presiding.
Second, all the participants appearing on courtroom reality showsget paid in some manner. Typically, the show pays the winner the arbitration award, and it also pays both parties an appearance fee, airfare and hotel expenses. Nonetheless, some participants have gone to court after the television decision and obtained different results.
A New York family court overruled part of a Judge Judy decision in 1999 because her decision “went beyond the scope of the arbitration.” The parties in the case had agreed to let Judy decide a dispute over personal property, but Judy’s ruling also granted child custody and visitation rights.
That said, some of Judge Judy’s decisions are truly wonderful. Judy once “took down” an entire elementary school. A family appeared before her in an attempt to get their tuition back from a school whose staff locked students in closets for hours at a time. Judy did some additional research on the case and found that the school staff did not academically qualify. The family got their money back and the school was completely shut down.
Judge Judy is great entertainment, and watching Judy bark at the participants is often hilarious. Please do not mistake most of it for law, however. When people agree to get paid by a television studio no matter what happens, and when the television studio pays for their airfare and hotel to come out for the filming, real justice may or may not be the end result.
That Judy was once an actual judge adds credibility to the decisions she hands down on her show. But because she is first an entertainer, those decisions are not always legally sound.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. The website for this business is brand new and Mr. Samakow will be most appreciative of any and all comments. www.thebusinessanswer.com