Forget about Girls, Homeland, New Girl, Scandal, and The Mindy Project. Television has had a strong female lead for decades: Her name is Judith Sheindlin.
Judge Judy premiered in 1996, and just got renewed through 2017. The show dominates daytime television, even edging out Oprah in reruns. While most television shows fight to hang onto viewership, Judge Judy’s grows. President Obama, Anderson Cooper, and Katie Couric all want her audience, and most television actors would kill for her $47 million annual salary.
Who makes up Sheindlin’s much-coveted daytime audience? Older women, African Americans, and Latinos. You might think Judge Judy is most popular with those who feel most disenfranchised by our legal system, but it’s hardly that simple. Part of the appeal is personal: her viewers’ loyalty is rivaled only by her own, and they know it. When a former bailiff who knew Sheindlin from her time as a family court judge in Manhattan wrote to congratulate her on the show, he quipped, “If you ever need a bailiff, I still look good in uniform.” She called as soon as she got the note, and he’s been by her onscreen side since. But Americans’ love of Judge Judy is more than personal: it’s symbolic.
"Consider yourself having been reasonably humiliated in front of 10 million people. Now, without saying another word, turn around, and find the exit. Goodbye."
Sheindlin’s audience considers her a real-life kind of superhero: a no-nonsense, sassy arbiter of justice who punishes the guilty, scolds the swindlers, and defends the little guy. She does what we want the justice system to do for us. My grandmother delights in watching Judge Judy lay down the law once a day in a routine that pairs Sheindlin’s acerbic commentary with Splenda-sweetened vanilla ice cream. It isn’t just that the “judge” delivers snappy one-liners: it’s that she deals them out even-handedly. One cousin, a business professional, has a standing date to watch Judge Judy in the evening with her seven-year-old daughter. She tells me, “We like watching her figure out who's telling the truth by asking a lot of seemingly unrelated questions.” I suspect her precocious daughter likes the idea that even adults can get in trouble.
Judge Judy can be showy, but rarely gratuitously so, and she’s smart—and doesn’t let anyone forget it. In a given case, Judge Judy might paraphrase Mark Twain (“If you tell the truth, you don't have to have a good memory; if you lie, you're always tripping over your own tie”) or offer a common-sense connection to her own life (“The toilet broke while she was using it—that doesn't mean that she broke it, and it doesn't mean that she's responsible for it! Toilets break—I had one just break in my apartment last week!”). Most satisfyingly, she tells it like it is: “Consider yourself having been reasonably humiliated in front of 10 million people. Now, without saying another word, turn around, and find the exit. Goodbye.”
Sheindlin’s persona is key to the show’s success, but so are the cases themselves. Judge Judy chooses cases that resonate with her audience. The most pervasive forms of injustice affecting Americans rarely get investigated, much less prosecuted, by the state; they’re “little” things: a dented car door, an unreturned security deposit, or an unfair asset split after a bad break-up. Citizens can usually only take action by bringing suit in small claims courts, navigating the complicated court system on their own. These courts hear lawsuits for claims that fall under a certain dollar amount that varies by state, from $10,000 in California to $5,000 in North Carolina; plaintiffs and defendants usually represent themselves.
A small claims court’s decisions relate to daily life, more so than virtually any other court. For most of us, there’s nothing “small” about the types of problems that end up in such courts: $500 is a lot of money, never mind $5,000. These courts address commonplace questions of fairness: How can I be made whole again after someone has damaged my property or violated an agreement? When does a promise become legally binding? The answers these courts supply reflect upon our justice system writ large and the society behind it.
Judge Judyemploys 60 to 65 researchers to visit courthouses around the country, where, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they can gain access to small claims filings. Promising candidates get sent back to the show’s producers, who assess their appeal. Some of their criteria are drama-based, like one producer’s affinity for disputes involving “prior relationships” (preferably “boyfriend-girlfriend, mother-daughter, father-son, father-brother, sister-sister”), but for the most part the show’s producers look for relatable cases: unfair billing practices, corrupt landlords, petty vandalism, unpaid child support, and family loan sharks. Selected participants sign a waiver to appear on the show, agreeing that Judge Judy’s decision is binding and they will not pursue the case elsewhere, and, in return, they receive a flat fee for making an appearance.
That’s where the fun begins. Defendants are announced by Sheindlin’s trusty bailiff, then appear before her in a mock court room. Judge Judy asks a lot of questions, identifies factual disputes, and parses “the question of law,” as a law professor would call it, for all to hear. Viewers who will never read a court transcript or slog through the lines of a judicial opinion get to hear a real-time approximation of judicial reasoning.
Many Judge Judy cases, even the most outrageous, speak to the everyday injustices suffered by most Americans. Who hasn’t had an unreasonable landlord they wished to have exposed and penalized? Who wouldn’t want to see an unruly neighbor with a penchant for scratching your car ordered to cover the repairs? By legitimating and rectifying the types of injustices that often make us feel helpless, Sheindlin reaffirms that justice is attainable. Because of shows like hers, we feel there is a way to seek fairness and accountability.
Of course, not everyone adores Judge Judy. The American Bar Association published an essay calling what Judge Judy and her colleagues do “syndi-court justice” (PDF) and accusing them of exploiting arbitration. They worry she’ll corrupt potential jurors and distort the justice system. The argument that Judge Judy is a threat to the jury system seems to forget the First Amendment—and, more importantly, the several amendments that tell us our Founding Fathers trusted juries. As a favorite law school professor, Akhil Reed Amar, wrote, “No idea was more central ... to America's distinctive regime of government of the people, by the people, and for the people—than the idea of the jury.” But not only are such criticisms constitutionally questionable, they’re empirically unfounded—like the supposed “CSI Effect,” the since-debunked theory that jurors who watched crime dramas would expect “too much scientific evidence.” Then there’s the commonsense protest: there are no juries on Judge Judy. She simulates a bench trial, not a jury trial.
Why do we love Judge Judy? Sheindlin hears and protects the reasonable American’s notion of accountability and justice. It doesn’t matter that she isn’t actually running a small claims court: she’s managing arbitration on the same issues. Judge Judy proves courts can right wrongs and guarantee future protections, perhaps the most basic foundation of an organized society. That means Judith Sheindlin plays a role in shaping and upholding our social contract. Witnessing successful legal proceedings, even in a simulated small claims setting, reassures citizens: offenders will be punished; victims will be compensated. Judge Judy might not be the most powerful judge in America, but she’s surely the most popular and the best paid—for good reason.