There are cities in Canada and the U.S. where you can spend two hours any weekday afternoon watching what your average viewer calls “the judge shows.” In this two-hour block you can see justice dispensed by a motley variety of judge characters. Right now, Judge Mathis is popular, as his honour, one Judge Greg Mathis, adds his motivational-speaker thing to laying down the law.
These judges come and go. Judge Joe Brown was a big draw for years, with Brown mixing old-guy humour and wit in his decisions. When the show was cancelled – in a dispute about money – he went back to being a lawyer and, famously, ended up spending five days in jail for contempt of court. Then there was Judge Faith, featuring the glamorous Faith Jenkins, a former Louisiana beauty queen who became assistant district attorney in Manhattan, acting as a social-worker kind of judge on TV. These days she fronts Divorce Court.
But the top judge show for decades – you know it and I know it – has been Judge Judy (most CBS stations, most afternoons). The straight-talking Judge Judith Sheindlin is a TV juggernaut. One of the highest-paid people in television, she’s been making about US$47-million a year for a very long time. That’s for only 52 days of work spent filming multiple episodes. She is also the creator and owner of the show Hot Bench, a current daytime hit. Two years ago, Forbes estimated her net worth to be US$440-million.
She’s come a long way from being a young lawyer in New York handing family court cases and then a supervising “real” family court judge, famous for her quick decisions and tongue-lashings delivered to teenagers and their lax parents. She came to prominence when 60 Minutes profiled her, emphasizing her reputation for harshness. She wasn’t presented as a sympathizer with the poor and oppressed. The opposite, actually.
At age 78 you’d think she might slow down and enjoy her success. But, no. The Judge Judy show she’s been doing since 1996 ends, but she’s only moving to a streaming service from broadcast TV. Next year, a new deal she struck with Amazon Studios will see her new pseudo-reality show go from CBS to some area of Amazon Prime Video.
To praise or condemn Judge Judy? That is the question. As iconic and familiar as she is, with her cutting humour and brisk dismissal of phonies and people chancing their arm, some say Sheindlin trades in a dark conservative ideology of poor-blaming and poor-shaming for the amusement of a bourgeois audience. What she does, they say, is help define an underclass as hopelessly dependent and made up of welfare bums, welfare queens and all of them in need of both punishment and stark reminders to take responsibility for their own lives.
There’s that: Judge Judy as a crypto-political figure, a Reagan-era neoliberal of the TV courtroom, telling people to quit whining about their situation and amplifying a homespun, common-sense solution that amounts to individualism. And then there’s the sheer success of her approach. It’s a performative, easily digested brand of law-and-order pragmatism and its popularity blinds people to the cruelty that it represents.
Then there’s Judith Sheindlin the female superstar, a grandmother with a vast fortune and a private jet to take her to the TV studios where she performs. People do want her clarity and bluntness brought to bear on their own gnarly situations. In 1997, John Lydon (that’s Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) used Judge Judy’s court to settle a dispute. A drummer he’d hired for a tour and then fired, wanted US$5,000 in payment. The judge ruled in Lydon’s favour and using the vernacular of her impoverished Brooklyn youth, she called the drummer a “nudnik.”
Sheindlin’s bluntness is what many viewers envy. She’s in a position to tell a defendant, as she has, “You’re an idiot. And a scammer. You’re a thief. Why don’t you get a job?” She berates welfare scroungers and deadbeat dads with particular relish.
So here we come to roost: Do we admire Judge Judy Sheindlin for her accomplishments and sharp tongue, or do we condemn her for shaming the poor and inarticulate? Deliberate for a while before you pass judgment.
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