Thank You, Your Honor, May I Have Another?

The stubbornly seductive perils of justice porn

OK, let's see, there's Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Cristina, Judge Milian, Judge Hatchett, Judge Mathis, that crazy guy who uses a baseball bat for a gavel, the, uh, um...damn! It is now officially harder to name every reality TV courtroom "judge" than it is to name every Supreme Court justice. (Souter, Alito, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Stevens, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Breyer!)

Five years ago, there were seven fake judges giving us our day (and occasional evening hour) in court. Now there are nearly twice that many, with three new shows (Judge Karen, Judge Jeanine Pirro, and Family Court With Judge Penny) debuting in September 2008 alone. At least one other, Street Judge, is on the way. They're there because in the ever-shrinking world of television syndication, where competition from cable and the Internet has made Oprah-sized hits as rare as silk ascots on The Jerry Springer Show, the new dream is a steady 1.5 Nielsen rating on a weekly budget of no more than $500,000. Justice porn, it turns out, is a fairly reliable way to achieve that end: Find a sassy real-life jurist with an itch for the big time, throw some penny-ante miscreants at her mercy, and let the premature adjudication begin.

Explicitly moral, obscenely didactic, showcasing a perversely distorted view of the American legal system, justice porn is a potent, ubiquitous presence in our lives, and at least as influential as the cartoon mayhem of Saints Row 2 or Young Jeezy's latest ode to thug life. And yet has the Federal Communications Commission's airwave fresheners ever knitted their vigilant brows over Judge Judy's contempt for the petitioners who enter her chambers seeking some facsimile of fairness? Will Hillary Clinton ever make alarmist speeches about the way these shows desensitize viewers to due process while glorifying judicial misconduct? When will the obsessive-compulsive filth inspectors at the Parents Television Council record every act of gratuitous gavel banging that occurs on these shows over a two-week period? Don't they know that grown-ups—naive and malleable grown-ups with a natural curiosity about civil litigation—are watching?

Despite the genre's emphasis on "real cases" and "real people," justice porn jurists act as if they've been possessed by the quirky spirit of David E. Kelley. Judge Milian addresses a defendant as "honey" in the process of berating him for referring to his secretary as "my girl." Judge Hatchett sentences a 14-year-old hellcat to a Patti LaBelle concert. Short of physical assault or Solomonic baby splitting, they can pretty much act however they want because they aren't actually judges, they're arbitrators, and the people who appear before them have signed away the rights they'd enjoy in a public courtroom.

But instead of emphasizing their status as private arbitrators who offer a different approach to dispute resolution than the U.S. court system, they present themselves as that system—or rather, an idealized version of it. In justice porn, gavels and bailiffs and American flags are kept around like fetish props, but procedural niceties, endless testimony, and other forms of legal foreplay are dispensed with. All power is consolidated in the hands of a single capricious authority, judgments are rendered swiftly and permanently, and even if the metaphorical glove don't always fit, defendants get the punishment they deserve. Sometimes the plaintiffs do too.

Like a Romper Room for adults, like Oprah with a whip, justice porn constantly preaches doctrines of prudence, responsibility, and self-empowerment: The ultimate goal is to avoid putting oneself in the position of requiring the court's assistance. As Laurie Ouellette, a professor of communications studies at the University of Minnesota, has written, "The imagined viewer at home is encouraged to self-govern her daily affairs without the direct involvement of the court, the welfare office, or any public institution for that matter." To reinforce this notion, Judge Judy is forever yipping at litigants for wasting her time, as if there is something she'd rather be doing than getting paid $38 million a year just to insult losers arguing over unpaid telephone bills.

Alas, there isn't anything else Judge Judy would rather be doing. Last year, she extended her contract through 2012. And while her show and others like it may promote self-reliance over government efforts to ensure one's welfare, they also portray a fantasy world that would radically expand the scope of governmental interference in our lives. "Impatience with ethical laxity is common to all the TV judges," Harry Stein wrote in City Journal in 2004. Stein apparently considers this impatience a virtue, but that's probably only because he's never appeared before a TV judge.

Indeed, Judge Judy and her brethren are the ultimate judicial activists, free to expand their inquisitions in ways even Dr. Phil might not dare, free to base their judgments on nothing more than hunches and body language. A lawsuit involving a hair weave gone bad can quickly turn into an indictment of both the plaintiff's and the defendant's lifestyles. In the world of televised justice, laziness, chronic infidelity, and all sorts of other private behaviors that aren't actually crimes become grounds for punishment.

But at least the genre is making those of us with a soft spot for credit card scammers, deadbeat roommates, and bad drivers more circumspect about choosing the right kinds of friends and relatives, right? Or is it just teaching us to sue these people when they do us wrong? While justice porn's loudest mouthpieces might tell us to wise up, make better choices, straighten out our lives, and stop wasting the court's time, that's all just hot air. Ultimately, what these shows dramatize most explicitly is the notion that lawsuits—for trivial sums, over trivial matters—are a legitimate means of mediating your life. They even give you toll-free numbers for scheduling some time in their courtrooms.

In a 2001 paper for the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal, Kimberlianne Podlas, an assistant professor of media law at the University of North Carolina, reported the results of a survey that explored the differences between the ways people who do or do not watch programs like Judge Judy perceive the legal system. One question asked respondents if they would "bring a claim in court." Only 42 percent of "non-frequent viewers" answered affirmatively, compared to 77 percent of frequent viewers. "By celebrating frequent suits over small sums," Podlas concluded, "syndicourt demonstrates that this type of low-end litigiousness is common or normal and that many people choose this path."

Instead of making us more responsible citizens, more inclined to rely on our own good judgment rather than public institutions, justice porn popularizes the idea that the court system is a legitimate venue for mending friendships, punishing moral (but not criminal) transgressions, and seeking inspirational hugs from stern but caring authority figures. At the same time, it positions judges as unquestionable authorities with unlimited power to scrutinize our lives. What's truly scary is that Judge Judy—a judge even more capricious, interventionist, and megalomaniacal than Simon Cowell—remains the undisputed queen of the genre. A few years ago, when Kurt Vonnegut suggested that she'd make an ideal nominee to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's spot on the Supreme Court, people actually took him seriously, and who knows, he may have been taking himself seriously too.

Luckily, Judge Judy makes too much money to consider that opportunity should it ever materialize. As much as I might fantasize about TV executives replacing her show with less harmful fare, such as uncensored reruns of Tony Soprano chopping off his enemies' heads, I hope her ratings stay strong.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.

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  • ||

    I watched my first episode of Judge Judy a few weeks ago. My first reaction was, "what a cunt." She repeatedly said, "if it doesn't make sense, it isn't true." Guess that mean quantum mechanics isn't true because Frau Judy doesn't understand it. The thought of truth being determined by this nitwit's capacity to understand what is going in the 20 or 30 minutes she spends on a case is frightening.

    I had to remind my mom that this judge really isn't a judge. As much as I hate "real" judges, most of them couldn't get away with dehumanizing their constituents the way this bitch does. The idea that she has a docket is a joke. That the idea of a judge doing her on in camera investigation and interview of witness would get a real judge disbarred and removed from the bench.

    I like that phrase, "justice porn." It fits.

  • PFJ||

    Mock Trial with J. Reinhold! Mock Trial with J. Reinhold!

  • Rowsdower||

    I don't understand the complaint about making the masses more litigious - don't Libertarians generally argue for lots of torts and breach of contract litigation instead of more onerous government policies?

    Judge Judy is annoying daytime tv trash but the times Ive watched her she generally goes after people who break their contracts.

    Plus, both parties on JJ have to agree to join the circus....

  • KipEsquire||

    "Explicitly moral, obscenely didactic, showcasing a perversely distorted view of the American legal system"


    Beato has apparently never spent an evening in a real small claims court (or, for that matter, an arbitration hearing), where the typical case is pre-decided on the pleadings and the "oral arguments" might last about 90 seconds (and lacks the civility of the actor-filled and therefore well-behaved gallery of Schiendlin's set).

    And I'm not sure why the core legal principles espoused on the show (in between the lectures) -- contract formation, damage measures for breach, the law of negligence, the impropriety of consequential damages, vicarious liability, joint & several liability, trespass and property rights, etc. -- which every lawyer spends several years learning, constitute "a perversely distorted view of the American legal system."

    Perhaps Beato would prefer the Exxon Valdez case, or the (original) O.J. Simpson trial as examples of "ideal" American justice?

    Furthermore, why a Schiendlin diatribe explaining that "just because you want money doesn't mean you deserve money" (or the converse of "just because you don't think you should be responsible for your actions doesn't mean you aren't") would be irritating to libertarians is beyond me.

  • ||

    Rowsdower-

    Libertarians prefer tort law over blanket gov't regulation, that doesn't mean we approve of filing lawsuits over trivial matters that should settled privately.

  • ||

    Like a Romper Room for adults

    While I appreciate the Romper Room reference, I don't really get how it applies here.

    If you're dumb enough to put yourself voluntarily in front of a petty tyrant like one of these judges, you deserve all the abuse you get. Since it's completely voluntary, I don't care one bit.

    However, the behavior these shitheads display on TV is probably indicative of petty tyranny engaged in by them when they were sitting judges, which sucks. It just makes me hate judges even more than I already do.

  • ||

    I was all set to tangle with KipEsquire, then I remember back to when I practiced in the NY State Courts. You think Judge Judy is a sham proceeding? Try guiding a trial through Kings County Supreme. They will bend over backwards to get you money. How often has Judge Judy gone out of her way to give tens of thousands of dollars to Russian fraudsters? (not counting when she was in Westchester).

    That said, Judge Judy is the relatively sober court show, and the shows really are trashy, i.e., Jerry Springer with judgment and punishment at the end.

  • ed||

    Every constituency seems to have its own fake judge. There's Judy, of course, but there's also a couple of negroes, a Chinaman, a Beaner, a dwarf (he sits on a box), the Two-Headed Girl (she deliberates with herself)...everything but a trannie judge. Shouldn't Bravo Network put on a trannie judge? It could follow Top Chef VIII.

  • ||

    Ironically enough, there doesn't appear to be any actual "justice porn", as a search for "lawyer", "judge", or "courtroom" reveals on the extensive listing

    here.

  • Chuck||

    The phrase "justics porn" alongside a picture of Judge Judy made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

  • Chuck||

    justics=justice. Two-finger typing strikes again.

  • ||

    "while Judge Judy and other shows may promote self-reliance and personal responsibility..."

    For certain values of "promote," I suppose. What they cater to is the universal desire to give some idiot a good scolding without repercussion.

    Usually it's repressed (he might punch me, she might have had extenuating reasons, I might be misreading what happened, it's not really any of my business). And as with porn, much of the fun is in the transgression.

    The courtroom setting notwithstanding, I don't believe most viewers are thinking "That's how the civil justice system works," or even "Gee, that's how it should work." I bet they're thinking "I wish I could tell off [feckless co-worker] [annoying sibling] [parasitic in-law] that way..."

  • ||

    Just a reminder... These shows are ENTERTAINMENT. Nothing more, nothing less.

    One question asked respondents if they would "bring a claim in court." Only 42 percent of "non-frequent viewers" answered affirmatively, compared to 77 percent of frequent viewers.

    This implies nothing. You have no idea if the shows are making litigious people, or if litigious people just like these shows. (I'd lay odds it's the latter.)

  • don\'t forget this guy...||

    http://texasjusticetv.com/

  • ||

    According to the results of the study, I think we could also conclude that since I watch Aquateen, I smoke pot, right?

  • ||

    LOL, I love Judge Judy, she is a real Hoot!

    Jess
    www.online-privacy.se.tc

  • ||

    Robbie, those of us who watch Aqua Teen don't need to do drugs, because we're already insane. That doesn't stop me, of course, but you get my point.

    "Getting it is easy...filling it with illegal substances and sending it across the border is not."

  • Mad Max||

    On the positive side, the people on these shows have signed agreements letting an ex-judge arbitrate their cases instead of having those cases tried in the court system. How many of these people would have used the courts if the justice porn wasn't available? To be sure, they might never have had their cases adjudicated at all if the shows didn't offer them the chance. But how many of them were prevented from clogging up the courts with their small-scale complaints? If this happened at all, it's an advantage, to be weighed against whatever negative effects may exist.

  • Mad Max||

    Remember good old Judge Wapner? Compared to these new programs, he looks like politeness itself. Judges today . . .

    Wapner's reply to this

  • Lefiti||

    "...they also portray a fantasy world that would radically expand the scope of governmental interference in our lives."

    True-believer libertarians put the fucking F in "fantasy world."

  • ||

    If we're talking justice pr0n, can't we at least have a pic of the Vegas OJ Simpson judge or Marylin Milian (from the People's Court)?

  • ||

    I was going to tange with Kip Esq., too. But he is right. Real courts are just as big a sham of theater as Judge Judy.

  • ||

    I think the best judge show on TV is "Veredicto Final," en espanol, from Univision. The judge actually has extensive legal experience in the areas that are usually covered by small claims court and family court, and she seems to possess a fair amount of judicial dignity. Of course, none of that interferes with the circus atmosphere, which never fails to entertain, whether or not the viewer knows any Spanish. In fact, I think they ought to make the Spanish transcripts available to those who are trying to learn the language. I suspect that a learn-Spanish method based on "Veredicto Final" would be a lot more fun and effective than "Destinos" or "La Familia Fernandez" (which have been inflicted on thousands of students for decades). Go, "jueza Cristina"!

  • ||

    ... like Oprah with a whip, justice porn constantly ...

    I'll be in my bunk.

  • ||

    Small claims court is an important part of the legal system.

    People get shot or beaten over "trivial" matters all the time; a legal venue for claims settlement is not trivial.

    Just because the dollar amount is small doesn't mean people don't get way crazy about it.

    I was half considering pushing my roommate out of a window over 1500 bucks.

  • db||

    Rowsdower, Rowsdower, bibbity-boppity bowsdower!


    ...rowsdower!

  • Oprah with a whip||

    "You need to love yourself. And if you don't love yourself, I'll have to do it for you. And I believe in tough love, don't you?"

  • Christ on a Cracker||

    The fine print at the end of these shows say the "litigants are paid for their appearance". Does anyone know how much? Exepenses certainly, but how much beyond that?

  • ||

    "Justice porn"
    don't besmirch porn with the "justice" epithet - wonderful, beautiful, stimulating porn.

  • Rowsdower||

    Quote:

    Libertarians prefer tort law over blanket gov't regulation, that doesn't mean we approve of filing lawsuits over trivial matters that should settled privately.


    Maybe you think that people who sue over their hot tub cleaning bill are dorks (and I agree!) but as a libertarian I can't really get worked up over people using their legal rights to address grievances, even if it is in a trailer-trashy way.

  • adf||

    visit the bronx courthouse on 161st. get real folks.

  • ||

    I would like to see the Judge Judy courtroom shown in junior high classes to see and discuss. Almost every show has a good lesson for young people and the stupid mistakes they make in every day relationships and choices. She's a real no-nonsense, but still a kind adult role model.

  • ||

    Certainly the superabundance of court shows is a proper target of ridicule. But Beato get a lot of it all backwards. The dismissive and berating tone of Judge Judy perfectly fits with the measliness of the litigants' complaints. Her scorn agrees with Beato's, effectively saying "since you people can't behave like grownups and you need a Mommy to intervene, then I will treat you exactly like children."

    And here is the thing about Judy. Hate her if you will, but watch the show and ask yourself: is she ever wrong? Half the time, she cuts someone off when it seems that they MAY be making a decent argument. But in the end, she always knows who really is the cheater.

  • ||

    Troy | December 9, 2008, said: #

    I had to remind my mom that this judge really isn't a judge. As much as I hate "real" judges, most of them couldn't get away with dehumanizing their constituents the way this bitch does. The idea that she has a docket is a joke.

    Caroline says: Troy, you don't know what you're talking about. Judy would eat you up alive just because you sound like a jerk.

  • ||

    I don't know... After watching Judge Judy regularly for awhile (it's amusing), I now undertake every transaction with friends and family a little differently because I don't want to be sued. My thinking is, "I don't want to end up on Judge Judy." So in a way, these shows have changed the way *I* do things.

    Her tactics may be awful, and the atmosphere may be circus-like, but in the end the judgments have to be within the law. In that aspect, these shows are somewhat helpful.

  • Nicolas Adjduer||

    WHICH IS WORST:

    Justice Porn

    or

    Maurey Povich's "Baby Daddy Paternity Test Day"?

    http://www.PleaseBreakTheLaw.com

  • Jess||

    Loved your article on unbiased reporting by the media, but couldn't find a way to comment on it on a page directly related to the article. Sweet work. I love it when a person points out flaws in their own community -especially when those flaws are pandemic. Great work!

    http://www.reason.com/news/show/129962.html

  • Jess||

    Re: justice porn, given humanity's severe case of Schadenfreude, these sorts of shows will always be entertaining to a significant segment of the human population. Reminds me of the alleged history of gladiatorial combat for prisoners in ancient Roman society. Some people just plain enjoy watching other people's misery on parade. Also sad, people seem to resent being schooled on the tedious facts of real day to day life our US court system. The masses cry, "entertain us!" -and I guess I'm saying that there will always be money out there for shows presented this way.

  • Larry McElhinney||

    That psycho makes $38 million a year ???

    Yikes.

  • Suzanne||

    A great piece. But Troy, man, calm down.

  • ||

    Wow! This is a guy with too much time on his hands! I really liked Judge Judy when I saw her. Funny, quick-witted, great actor: I guess she must earn her 30 mil. Just jealous I guess, the author probably earned enough to buy an ice-cream sandwich with this rant (which is kind of the same tone as Judy's btw). And "Romper Room?" Lousy metaphor. Romper Room had a sweet teacher talking gently to the child-viewers: "I see... Judy and I see... Joe and I see... "

  • ||

    i was watching one of these shows once when the judge, an attractive young blonde, began to suspect that one of the litigants had been drinking, so she dismounted the bench and approached him to smell his breath. i was sitting there thinking "kiss her, you fool." if an attractive young blonde tv judge ever gets that close to me, she's in for a surprise.

  • ||

    I notice the writer refers to the complainants as 'losers'. 'Loser' is an ugly word that sums up America's vicious social philosophy.
    At least Judge Judy isn't as crass. She has enough respect and empathy to understand why small debts matter very much to people with little money.
    The people who volunteer themselves for reality shows are exhibitionists - but in America, who isn't?
    Joyce

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