Television

Thank You, Your Honor, May I Have Another?

The stubbornly seductive perils of justice porn

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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.