Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren once wrote, “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.” The current slate of television court shows are undeniably spirited. Whether or not they keep justice alive is another matter. In the Louisville, Kentucky, market, there are ten such shows, and numerous more that don’t air here. Watching them is probably educational, but the lesson can be disheartening.
All the shows follow the same format, namely, mediated arbitration on camera. A plaintiff and defendant enter the courtroom, a voiceover provides the basic facts, and the litigants are questioned by a presiding judge, who then renders a binding decision. (The exception to this pattern is Jury Duty, where cases are decided by a panel of celebrity jurists, but the judge still questions the plaintiff and defendant.)
Some judges focus more on the emotional well-being of the litigants than they do the letter of the law or the facts of the case. Glenda Hatchett is one such judge. Many cases in her court deal with delinquent juveniles and have no basis in the violations of the civil or criminal code. Usually, the plaintiff in the case is a relative seeking to put troubled Johnny or Teesha on the right path. Judge Hatchett is more than happy to send the wayward child to a federal penitentiary, halfway house or center for tolerance and equality to learn a valuable lesson taught by a former thug, druggie or bigot. Invariably, the children are “scared straight,” with Hatchett sending them off to “do great things” amid much hugging and tears.
Equally compassionate is Judge David Young, who hears small claims cases. Unlike any other judge on TV in the fact that he’s openly gay, Young frequently uses humor to ease tensions (as when he winked and told one defendant, “You look like a drama queen. Just so we’re clear, there’s only one queen in this courtroom and that’s me”). Young’s hot button is bigotry of any kind, and the least indication that a litigant is prejudiced means he loses the case, although Young is surprisingly restrained in determining awards.
While Hatchett and Young look out for underdogs, other judges are more plainly interested in themselves. Exceedingly critical, they manage cases based on how they feel about participants. The most egregious of these is also the most popular, Judge Judy Sheindlin. She appears to make up her mind early in a case (say, before she sits down), her questioning of participants a formality designed to rationalize her decision for the audience. Favored litigants are allowed to speak freely, and Judy frames questions so they might elaborate on their innocence or claim. Those litigants she dislikes learn of her disdain within moments of speaking: she interrupts, insults, and mocks them (apparently, she feels it is acceptable to demean anyone, as long as she adds “sir” or “madam” to her attack, as in, “You’re an idiot, madam”). She frequently rolls her eyes as litigants are speaking, glares at them, throws her hands up in the air, and leans back in her chair with arms crossed. Nothing the losing party says, does, or produces in the way of evidence can sway this judge.
Like Judy, Judge Greg Mathis frequently overlooks evidence or the lack thereof in his decisions. Mathis was a tough kid headed down the path to prison before he went to law school. Unfortunately, he has trouble separating his life experiences from those of the litigants in his court. In one case, an aunt was suing her niece, a masculine looking lesbian, for “keying” the aunt’s car. Mathis repeatedly thwarted the young woman’s attempts to answer her aunt and refused to hear her side of the story before ruling against her, despite the fact that the aunt had presented no evidence of the girl’s guilt beyond her suspicions. In another case, Mathis refused to believe that a young woman had kicked her drug habit because she had done so without attending a treatment facility, despite her assurances that she was clean.
While Mathis and Sheindlin are moved by their instincts, there are some judges who are guided by the law. The best at illuminating how laws and legal precedents should guide courtroom decisions are Judge Marilyn Milian of The People’s Court and Alex E. Ferrer of Judge Alex. Their litigants are more likely to have their sides heard and be subjected to fair rounds of questions. Milian and Ferrer both explain which laws affect their rulings and how, so that those appearing before them are clear on why they win or lose. These explanations are informative: basically, if you plan to sell, buy, pawn, lend or borrow anything with any material or sentimental value, you need a contract that spells out of every aspect of the transaction, and to keep any records or receipts of the act for as long as you live, as well as the dozens of pictures and videos you should have taken of the deal. This should be done even if the other party is your parents or spouse.
Neither Milian nor Ferrer is hot-headed or excessively emotional, although both, like Young, use wit to keep litigants at ease. Still, they lose their patience at times and verbally beat up stubborn or confrontational litigants, like those who display frightening stupidity. These participants embody a second major lesson (after the contract lesson): people will sue you for anything.
On Judge David Young, a woman sued her dry cleaner for ruining her clothes, although it had been two years since she claimed the clothes had been ruined and she had no receipts to prove that she had ever taken the clothes to this particular shop. Judge Judy featured the case of a woman suing her hypnotherapist, claiming she suffered after being scared by a psychic vision revealed by the therapist during one of their sessions. And on Judge Hatchett, a young mother sued two men to get DNA tests so paternity could be determined; the tests showed that neither was the father. Such cases highlight how litigious our society has become. Almost all judges stress the importance of communication as the proper tool for resolving familial conflicts, though mediation apparently takes less effort.
The third lesson offered by courtroom dramas is a look at the judicial process. Not only are the judges real, but the many of the court officers also used to work as court officers off camera (Officer Pete on Judge Maria Lopez was a fireman). As in the “real” system, one’s fate in court lies largely in the hands of the judge (or, as on Jury Duty, the jury), and it is best to hope for a judge who is fair and even-tempered. Despite the praise she has received for being tough, Judge Judy represents what is wrong with the US system, in which sympathy or anger too frequently supersedes logic in determining outcomes.
All that said, these judges are very different from those who preside over most American courtrooms. Judge Cutler of Jury Duty is the only white, heterosexual male in the 10 shows I saw. Four are African American (Mathis, Hatchett, Joe Brown of Judge Joe Brown, and Lynn Toler of Divorce Court), four Latino/a (Ferrer, Milian, Lopez, and Cristina Perez of Cristina’s Court), and one is gay (Young). If only our judicial roster was this diverse.
Watching these courtroom dramas had me wondering why people choose to bicker over their disagreements on television, particularly in front of judges whose impartiality is questionable. A disclaimer that appears at the end of all the shows might answer that question: participants are paid to appear, and any judgment against them is taken from that fee. So, depending on the amount of the judgment, you can be sued, lose, and still make money, which teaches viewers one final and unfortunate lesson. It’s possible to behave badly or hurt other people, and profit from it.