After appearing on 60 Minutes in 1993, Brooklyn-born, lace collar-wearing “Truth Machine” Judge Judith Sheindlin caught the eye of TV producers looking to fill the void of the then recently cancelled The People’s Court. The rest is history; this Friday is the 20th anniversary of Judge Judy’s premiere.
During two 30-minute episodes every weekday, Judge Judy teaches viewers how to treat others and how they should expect to be treated in turn, all while exposing the inner workings of the small claims court system. Her sarcastic, no-nonsense style has been parodied on The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. She has inspired numerous courtroom reality shows, but still Judge Judy exists only in the background of TV Land. Why is a show with 11.1 million viewers, consistently rated highest in daytime and first-run syndication for years, so ignored in serious discussions of television? Is it because it appeals mostly to women and minorities? Is it because it features an accomplished woman not being “nice”? Judge Judy often says that “they” don’t keep her on-air because she’s 5’ 10” and gorgeous. So why do they?
One secret to her longevity: Judith Sheindlin is genuine. The first major article to feature her, when she was a judge in the Manhattan branch of New York’s Family Court, was published in the Los Angeles Times in February 1993. It described a “tart, tough-talking and hopelessly blunt” woman whom people watched, “just waiting for her to tumble off her throne.” I guess they’re still waiting; 23 years on she has yet to soften her persona, and has managed to make quite a handsome living off it. Judge Judy subscribes to the old cliché about “not being here to make friends”—after all, she is a judge. Her approach to justice is more Gene Wilder yelling at Charlie for stealing Fizzy Lifting drinks than Gene Wilder giving Charlie the factory because he does the right thing. That’s the beauty of it.
Watching her show, you feel like life is black and white, right and wrong, and Judge Judy knows all. The courtroom is her “playpen,” as she often remarks to unruly litigants, and she does not have time for your sob story (“save it for Dr. Phil”). Judge Judy’s message has always been about personal responsibility and self-sufficiency. The plaintiff is not always right; both parties share responsibility for deescalating bad situations and mitigating the damage. Judy will often question why a litigant didn’t just walk away before things got out of hand. Sometimes the verdict is split in half and both parties pay. Sometimes the plaintiff will lose and the defendant is awarded their I-might-as-well-sue-too counterclaim.
One life lesson from Judge Judy: If you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory. Time and time again, litigants forget the story they made up for their deposition, and tell Judge Judy something completely different when they’re standing in front of her. And once you change your story with Judy, you are done. Everything else you say is suspect.
Another life lesson from Judge Judy: If it doesn’t make sense, it probably isn’t true. She believes there is a basic order to things, a cause and effect, and that all behaviors can be logically explained. The plaintiff’s car wasn’t magically keyed by some stranger, but probably by the neighbor they’ve been feuding with.
A sad scenario that plays out over and over again in front of Judge Judy is when someone borrows money from a friend and doesn’t pay it back. The next thing you know they’re facing off in court, never to be friends again. Here’s someone who cared enough about their friend to lend them money, often money they didn’t have (credit card debt comes up often on Judge Judy), and they’re ultimately paid back with their friend hating their guts. On Seinfeld, whenever Kramer would ask to borrow something of Jerry’s, Jerry would say just keep it. Maybe that’s how you have to be to preserve friendships: Don’t lend anything you can’t afford to lose. That leads to another life lesson from Judge Judy: Never co-sign on a loan for someone. Or if you do, again, be prepared to take over the payments—loans seem to last longer than friendships.
Relationships make up a big share of the cases on Judge Judy, and her take on settling these disputes is old school: Be married. As Judge Judy explains, the courts are not here to divvy up the property of people “playing house.” While she may seem conservative in her rulings, Judith Sheindlin has spoken out in favor of gay marriage and holds liberal political views. She just wants you to get a job, pay your fair share—be self-sufficient.
It must be difficult hearing people’s misery day in and day out and having to boil it down to a cookie-cutter ruling. People are upset, their lives are upside-down, and it’s all settled in fifteen TV minutes. And after 5,400+ episodes, it would be nice to see Judge Judy try cases other than those valued at less than $5,000, which tend to be dog fights, rent disputes, and used car loans. But Judge Judy has extended her contract until 2020, and the small claims court well isn’t drying up anytime soon.