M. Peter Katsufrakis, the charismatic and innovative Los Angeles small claims court judge whose “people’s court” gained national attention in the 1960s and ‘70s, has died. He was 83.
Katsufrakis, a Tarzana resident who turned down an offer to be the original judge on television’s “The People’s Court,” died Monday of heart failure at UCLA Medical Center.
A former entertainment lawyer with the O’Melveny and Myers law firm, Katsufrakis was appointed a municipal court judge by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown in 1965. He was subsequently elected for two more terms and left the bench on a disability retirement in 1977, after phlebitis in his right leg prevented him from sitting for long periods.
During his 12 years presiding over small claims actions in Division 4 of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, Katsufrakis quickly built a reputation as an advocate for the little guy.
In a 1970 interview with The Times, he recalled that when he took over small claims, every Friday was called “store day.”
“All these big companies could come in with up to 50 claims apiece -- most of them defaults where the defendants didn’t show up -- and they’d just get an automatic judgment from the clerk. The judge wouldn’t even hear the cases.”
On his first day on the job, Katsufrakis saw the corporate representatives lined up in the hallway waiting for the clerk and ordered every one to present his case to the bench.
He eliminated “store day” the following week, issuing orders limiting each plaintiff to two cases per session, and he ordered that all cases be tried in the jurisdictions where the defendant lived or entered into the business dealing.
“These companies were taking their cases from all over -- from Oregon to the Mexican border -- and trying them in Los Angeles because that’s where their home office was,” he said. “The poor guy who lived, say, in Fresno couldn’t get here to defend himself, so the company won automatically. I cut that out in a hurry.”
Katsufrakis also urged the small claims court office staff to help plaintiffs file their claims and provided interpreters for those who spoke Spanish.
His transformation of the Los Angeles small claims court garnered national attention. He appeared on the Tom Snyder, Regis Philbin and Dinah Shore TV talk shows, and newspapers, magazine and other media visited his courtroom.
Katsufrakis was a forceful personality, with a booming, authoritative voice, flamboyant gestures and a flair for breaking courtroom tension with a joke or erupting with anger at an injustice.
At the time of Katsufrakis’ retirement, Municipal Presiding Judge Irwin J. Nebron said Katsufrakis was one of the first judges to have a strong feeling for small claims. Katsufrakis, Nebron said, took an assignment nobody particularly wanted and “made it into something that became the jewel in the court’s crown.”
During Katsufrakis’ tenure, the Los Angeles Small Claims Court was recognized by the National Institute for Justice as a model court, and courts across the nation began patterning themselves after it.
“That’s the tragedy,” Katsufrakis said. “Generally throughout the country, this kind of court is a scut court, a stepchild.”
Not to Katsufrakis, who turned down appointments to higher judicial posts. He preferred dealing with litigants, without lawyers and the accompanying courtroom procedures.
Private individuals are required by law to represent themselves in small claims courts.
“I’m a very activist-type person,” Katsufrakis said in a 1977 interview with The Times. “So I figured with that type personality, I better get into something where I’m going to be involved and not sit in some court where I’m going to listen while the lawyers go through their various charades.”
The son of Greek parents, Manuel Peter Katsufrakis was born in Fruita, Colo., on Feb. 20, 1920. He grew up in the coal mining town of Dawson, N.M., and moved with his family to Modesto about 1940.
Drafted into the Army out of junior college in Modesto, he became a captain, taught in an officers’ school in Miami and later served in Greece, where he remained for four years after the war as director of Greek war relief.
He returned to college in the early 1950s and completed his undergraduate studies at Stanford University and then entered its law school.
Katsufrakis’ wife, Martha, said Wednesday that her husband was asked to be the first judge on “The People’s Court” television program but turned it down because he would have lost his disability pension as a judge if he had taken another job. Besides, she said, “He didn’t think there would be that much interest in a program like that.”
He was wrong, of course. “The People’s Court,” a syndicated program that debuted in 1981 with Judge Joseph A. Wapner presiding, continues to air with Judge Marilyn Milian now on the bench.
In addition to his wife of 43 years, Katsufrakis is survived by his son, Jason; daughter, Danai; brother, George; and sister, Angie Chalfant.
A Trisigion, or prayer service, will be held at 7 p.m. today at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 9501 Balboa Blvd., in Northridge, where a funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday.
Memorial donations may be made to Stanford University Law School Fund and St. Nicholas School.