Verdict Is Largely Favorable for Courtroom TV

Times Staff Writer

It was an assignment I couldn't pass up. Sit on my couch and watch television all day. But there was a catch: I could only watch TV court shows.

As a courts reporter, I have sat through endless days of testimony and attorneys' arguments, so I admit I was a little curious to see how closely the TV shows parallel real-life courtrooms.

Planning my day was easy. A courtroom show was on every half-hour from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Since Judge Joseph A. Wapner became a national icon with "The People's Court" more than 20 years ago, TV justice shows have grown in popularity and number. Programs such as "Texas Justice" and "Divorce Court" air throughout the day.

"Judge Judy," for example, was on three times on two stations, though I thankfully only caught her twice. I was even able to view a Spanish-language court show, "El Corte Familiar."

The morning of my marathon, I made myself some tea and curled up with my remote control and notebook. But, alas, the first show, "Judge Mathis," was preempted by breaking news. Breaking court news, that is. In an emotional hearing broadcast live on several stations, a San Diego judge listened to tearful speeches from Danielle van Dam's parents before sentencing David Westerfield to death for abducting and killing the young girl.

I didn't know how the rest of the day's TV programs could rival that very real drama, but I forged ahead. By 5 p.m., I had watched eight judges in action and heard 18 cases, mostly small-claims suits. My eyes were blurry and my stomach hurt from eating too much microwave popcorn, but, yes, I was entertained.

Though some of the scenarios were ridiculous, others were realistic. I have had my share of squabbles with family members, neighbors and landlords, so, though I hate to admit it, I could relate to at least a few of the cases.

Here are some of the lawsuits I heard that day: A woman suing her friend to recover $1,700 stolen from her home during a Memorial Day barbecue; a mother suing her daughter for repeatedly using a phone card without permission; and a teenager suing her ex-boyfriend for totaling her car.

Certain themes were common, from souring relationships to roommate quarrels to money disputes. Some of the courtrooms were chaotic, with the litigants frequently interrupting the judges and talking over each other. Others, like Judge Judy, ran an orderly courtroom, with her bailiff reprimanding a defendant for smiling too much and for slouching.

In the last year, I've covered Winona Ryder's shoplifting case and watched an attorney crawl on all fours during the San Francisco dog-mauling trial. But I can safely say TV courts are far more absurd than the courtrooms I visit. The people I write about are less outspoken, the disputes less outrageous and, without exception, the judges less amusing.

For the most part, the TV judges reminded me more of my high school principal than any jurist I've seen in person. TV judges rarely do anything as complex as citing the law, referring instead to their personal experiences when making rulings. Lectures and advice are common. To arguing friends, Judge Greg Mathis urges reconciliation. To teens, Judge Joe Brown encourages listening to parents.

The jurists also don't hesitate to share their opinions. Occasionally, a TV judge is downright rude. In my day of TV watching, I jotted down these quotes from three judges: "Don't give me that malarkey." "Cut the crap." "What are you, nuts?"

Judge Judy Sheindlin, a former New York family court jurist, is perhaps the most confrontational. I've seen judges scold observers for talking too much and kick reporters out because of a ringing cell phone, but I don't remember ever witnessing a judge blatantly accuse someone of lying.

After hearing the case of an airplane passenger who hit a fellow passenger on the head with a book for refusing to switch seats, Sheindlin adjusted the glasses on the edge of her nose and looked at the violent passenger in disbelief, saying, "Is there something chronically wrong with you?" She quickly ordered him to pay $1,500 in damages to the man he smacked.

Judge Larry Joe Doherty of "Texas Justice," who speaks with a drawl and wears cowboy boots, is the funniest of the bunch. The black-robed comedian keeps the mood light, often joking with participants. When one plaintiff said she could tell the judge stories that would put hair back on his head, Doherty responded, "If that's a promise, we'll take some time and I'll let you do that."

The judges I watch on a daily basis in downtown Los Angeles rarely even crack a smile while on the bench. They are all about procedure, not personality -- at least when they're on the job.

And without fail, the TV judges pounded their gavels the way stubborn children pound their fists. They slammed the gavels to silence the litigants, to make rulings, to punctuate their sentences. In the last year at the criminal courts building, I've never even seen a gavel.

The TV judges' backgrounds are varied.

Mills Lane, a no-nonsense Nevada judge, is a former boxer and boxing referee whose show opens with the motto, "In the ring and in the courtroom, he's fair and he's firm. He's Judge Mills Lane, America's judge."

Mathis, tough but compassionate, was a juvenile delinquent in Detroit before making his way through law school and becoming a judge.

While watching the cases, I did something I never get to do when reporting on real court stories. I took sides, gleefully. I even made bets with myself on who would win. Most of the time, I was right. It wasn't hard.

In one case, a man sued a bicyclist for vet bills after his Chihuahua was hurt in an accident. Judge Brown took one look at the dog, heard briefly from both sides and, just as I expected, ruled in favor of the dog owner.

In another case, two old friends got into a fistfight after a night of drinking and sued each other for damages. They appeared on the revamped "The People's Court," where Judge Marilyn Milian decided both were "drunken fools" and that neither deserved any money. Thank God, I thought.

"Goodbye, go home and leave each other alone," she declared before slamming down her gavel.

Though I was already home, I was relieved to finally turn off the TV at the end of the day. But I knew that when I returned to work Monday morning, I would miss the narrators calling the play-by-play. And I would definitely miss the swiftness of TV court cases, each argued and resolved within 30 minutes -- long before my daily deadline.

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