The End of Courtroom TV

After more than two decades on TV, both The People’s Court with Judge Marilyn Milian, and Judge Mathis were not renewed for a new season, a result of the changing nature of daytime television, and it brings to end an era of controversial courtroom TV.  Although the quality of courtroom TV shows has somewhat improved since the 1990s and 2000s, all of them leave behind a troubling legacy, one that championed the exploitation of individuals who could be described as vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged.  What is so crazy about all of this is that many of those same shows were nominated for television awards such as Emmys, and some even won.  While some people are complaining about the end of an era, courtroom TV was mostly for entertainment purposes, and it rarely educated viewers on anything that had to do with the law.

Courtroom TV shows are about arbitration.

One big misconception about many of these “courtroom” TV shows is that they shine light on court life, when in reality they are only focused on arbitration.  Arbitration is an alternative method of dispute resolution that occurs outside judiciary courts.  Arbitrators tend to be lawyers or retired judges, and arbitration is the process of coming to a binding agreement, that is determined by an arbitrator, after they have heard from defendants and plaintiffs, and these sessions are generally held in private.  When people decide to enter into arbitration, they tend to do so because it is a quicker and cheaper alternative to taking the dispute to court, and you can still retain a lawyer to present your case to the arbitrator.

The simplest way to think about arbitration would be to think of a disagreement you might have with a sibling that you can not solve on your own, so then you go to your parents and ask for their help to find a solution.  Once your parents make their decision and after they explain it to you and your sibling, that decision is final and there is no room for “but’s”.

As someone who has experience with the arbitration process, I can say that arbitration looks nothing like what we see on those “courtroom” TV shows, and arbitrators certainly do not interact with defendants and plaintiffs in the manner that some of those “judges” did on TV.  The courtrooms we see on TV are far from what most arbitration environment settings look like, a regular-sized room with a table and few chairs, and without the presence of a bailiff.  So, remember, that very little of what you see on TV or on social media are what they seem, even when what you are seeing appears to look like a “courtroom” and has all the accompanying features of a “courtroom”.

A real judge does not attempt to provoke or humiliate defendants in court.

There are quite a few disturbing interactions that have occurred on “courtroom” TV, between judges and defendants or plaintiffs.  The one that sticks out the most is an interaction between Judge Joe Brown and the defendant, Mr. Williams.

From the get-go, it appears as though the plaintiff was encouraged to mock the defendant, with whom she had an affair with, and she starts to discuss how he had cried to her about how his prior girlfriend had broken up with him.  This story had nothing to do with her wanting to get reimbursed for the two hundred dollars that she lent Mr.  Williams so that he could pay a locksmith for their service.  However, Judge Joe Brown ‘embellishes’ the moment, also mocking Mr.  Williams, saying “I hope you are a man, I don’t know, a lot of folks are down low these days.”, ”You are talking over me just like you were a woman.  So, when you start acting like one, sounding like one, moving like one.  You are one”, “Your problem is you needed a momma.”, “You started acting like a little girl in here throwing a tantrum, and living off of a woman.”, “You are doing girl stuff.”, and “Excuse me, fool.”

At one point, Judge Brown even admits to trying to provoke Mr.  Williams, and when Mr. Williams growl-barks at the Judge, the Judge orders that he be arrested.  What makes the interaction even more sad is the fact that when Judge Brown says something about Mr. Williams’ needing a father, Mr. Williams tells him that his father had died a long time ago.  By the end of this episode, and after watching a few other ones, it becomes hard not to view Judge Brown as a pathetic excuse for a judge, and someone who seems to project his own insecurities and trauma onto other men that remind him of the environment he grew up in.

How does anyone watch that rendition of “courtroom” TV and think that the show is anything more than a platform to mock and embarrass people who are vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged?  It should be clear that this is trashy television, and the entertainment is at the expense of another person’s misfortune.  A real judge does not attempt to provoke or humiliate defendants by implying they are gay, feminine, or stupid.  They do not disrespect their families, and if they do, they know better than to admit it on television.  If and when they do all of these things, they are disbarred and banned from practising law, but that outcome never occurred on “courtroom” TV.

“Where I’m from, you’re born with respect.” Dr. McCaffery on The People’s Court

One memorable courtroom TV exchange that occurred between one of these judges and a defendant, occurred between Judge Milian and Dr. McCaffery.  When this exchange was aired in 2007, Dr. McCaffery, who also appeared to have been an elected Councillor, was referred to as “honey” by Judge Milian, a condescending term that is inappropriate in court settings, so he corrected her by saying, “I am Dr.  McCaffery, and not honey”.  Like many television personalities, Judge Milian decided to make it “about her”, saying the following about respect, “Where I’m from you sorta gotta earn that.” Dr.  McCaffery responded with, “Guess what! Where I’m from you’re born with it.” It was the perfect response.

The Judge was not happy with Dr.  McCaffery, but he was in the right, so she tried to be passive aggressive with him by using unparliamentary language that implied that the plaintiff had to “jerk around” with Dr.  McCaffery for the sum of money that was in dispute.  Dr. McCaffery did get out of line, saying.  ‘’Watch yourself your honor.”, and they both managed to get the other to act out of character.  However, Dr. McCaffery managed to compose himself right before Judge Milian started to imply for the bailiff to get physical with Dr. McCaffery.  To this, Dr. McCaffery responds by saying, “If Douglas touches me, you will not be happy, your honour.” and it threw off Judge Milian so hard that she responded by saying, “If Douglas beats you to a pulp, I will be delighted.”

These types of thuggish remarks by a judge would never occur in reality, and if they did, that judge would be disbarred from practising law.  Instead, “courtroom” TV “judges” are provided with leniency to add to the ongoing chaos that many of these defendants and plaintiffs have in their lives, because these shows are primarily created to entertain viewers at the expense of those who are in need of help.

A missed opportunity to educate viewers on all things legal.

A part of me is sad to see the end of an era because I grew up on Judge Judy and growing up, I lived for that type of drama.  It also sucks because there are some great judges that started picking up steam for courtroom matters, but with a positive twist.  One of those judges is Judge Frank Caprio, an eighty-six-year-old municipal judge in Rhode Island.  Judge Caprio has his own show on YouTube, Caught in Providence, and his show is so much better than all the other “judge” shows combined.

The episodes I would recommend are: Welcome to America, My Dad was Deported, An Extraordinary Mom, and Tough Year.  The “Welcome to America” episode focuses on a newcomer family from Syria, and how their only child, an eight-year-old girl, acts as translator for mom and dad.  It was a pretty cool episode, and it reminded me of how I used to translate for my parents and grandparents too.

“An Extraordinary Mom” is another cool episode which highlights the struggles of a single mom with two children, the younger child having special needs, and how she is trying hard to make ends meet ever since the father abandoned the family.  The best thing about Caught in Providence is that it highlights the real-life situations that people go through, and how a little “break” can go a long way.

Another memorable episode of “courtroom” TV done right is a Judge Mathis episode where a dispute occurs between an uncle and a nephew.  The nephew moved away from a dangerous situation in Oakland to St.  Louis, to live with his uncle and aunt.  The nephew had sickle cell anemia, something the uncle mocks, and the uncle verbally berates his nephew and tells him that he means nothing to him.  Upon hearing this, an emotional Judge Mathis pauses the proceeding to lecture the uncle about the seriousness of sickle cell anemia and how his nephew had no parents to turn to, and how he was being tough for all the wrong reasons.  What makes this episode even more memorable is that there was a “where are they now” feature on it, and it turns out that the nephew became a preacher and was married with children.  That is a real-life fairy-tale ending, where a young man who was born into a toxic environment decides to take control of his own destiny, and even when everyone he knows turns their back on him, he still manages to overcome the odds.

Imagine if instead of all the hoopla that “courtroom” TV prioritized, viewers were provided with lessons on various aspects of the law at the end of each episode.  If that had been the case, maybe “courtroom” TV might still be a thing.