The popular television show "The People's Court" has contributed to steadily increasing caseloads by litigants who often compare the presiding judges to Joseph Wapner, according to small-claims court officials.
The National Center for State Courts says the small-claims caseload has nearly doubled this decade. And some judges say litigants are better informed thanks to "The People's Court."
"Before our show, people didn't know that there was a small-claims court that they can go to," Wapner, 69, said from his California office. "Now they can go to court and have their dispute settled by a judge and not through fisticuffs."
In suburban Gwinnett County, Chief Magistrate Warren Davis is getting tired of hearing about Wapner.
So he issues a standard warning at the start of each session of his court: "Television is not real life."
"I can't tell you how many times I've been quoted Judge Wapner in court," Davis said.
It isn't surprising. A Washington Post survey earlier this year found more than five times as many people knew of Wapner than could identify the U.S. chief justice, William H. Rehnquist.
Judge Wapner, a real-life judge in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, has presided over the syndicated TV program since 1981.
The show's appeal comes from the drama played out before the bench every day on 184 stations across the country. Every case is a real one, taken from those filed in Small Claims Courts throughout Southern California. Wapner's decisions are legally binding under agreements signed with participants on the show.
James G. Bodiford, Cobb County's chief magistrate, said the show was bogging down his court but providing him with better-informed litigants.
"The public is getting much more intelligent about small claims, and 'The People's Court' has helped," he said.
But, he said, there is one exception--collection of judgments.
On TV, Wapner tells the winner how much money he will collect, and the show's producers pay him.
Not so in real life, where the individual must collect the judgment, sometimes by again going to court to get wages garnished.
"I remember one lady who walked up to me and said, 'Judge, which office do I go to to collect my money?' " Bodiford recalled. "I said, 'Ma'am, you have to collect the money.' She was just incensed."