MiSTings and More

Don’t Tell Me What the Law Says--
That’s Hearsay.

Everything I ^don’t know about the law—and about human nature—I learned from Judge Judy.

Because I’m the judge, that’s why.

La loi, c’est moi.

I don’t believe you.

The show you love to hate

For most viewers, Judge Judy remains the show you love to hate. But some people are losing their grip on the “love to” part.

On one side are the lawyers—the real ones, practicing in real courts—and the real judges who work with them. This is where you get the alarming argument that “Syndi-Courts” aren’t just mindless entertainment. They can be actively harmful to the judicial system, because they give potential jurors a severely mistaken idea of how courts are supposed to work, and how judges are supposed to think and act.

On the other side are the litigants. It is normal to feel some disgruntlement when you lose a case. When instead you get out-and-out venom, something is wrong. For comparison, consider litigants’ comments on The People's Court. The losers can be expected to complain that they weren’t allowed to present their case. But viewers have just seen plainly that they did present a case. It just wasn’t good enough. On Judge Judy, on the other hand . . .

It is surely no coincidence that the most incandescent rage comes from people who were recruited to appear on the show after filing in their local Small Claims court. When you enter the court system, you expect justice to behave in a certain way. If, instead, you find yourself on a TV sound stage before a group of actors and extras, you are in for a nasty shock. As it turns out:

If you want my opinion . . .

Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, just a human being with connected brain cells. But then, if you could afford a lawyer, you wouldn’t be scouring the Internet for answers, would you?

Q.: Should I take my case to Judge Judy?

A.: Only if you genuinely don’t care whether you win or lose.

If you’re suing someone, it means that you believe you are in the right. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that your belief is correct.

A “real” judge will normally try to follow any applicable law. A TV judge doesn’t have to.

Conclusion: not everyone who is legally in the right will win. That’s not a legal assessment; it’s simple arithmetic.

Q.: Should I agree to appear on Judge Judy if asked?

A.: Only if you are legally in the wrong.

That wasn’t a typo. Here’s why:

  1. In the US, courtroom TV is formally binding arbitration.

    The introductory voice-over to People’s Court says “both parties have agreed to drop their claims”. That may sound contra­dictory, but it’s technically correct. Litigants on the show are selected from people who have already filed a case in small-claims court. To appear on TV instead, they first have to withdraw the claim.

    Other courtroom TV shows have tried to do the same thing, using real small-claims filings from selected juris­dictions. In the case of Judge Judy, a surprising number of these claims seem to end with Her Honor dismissing the case without prejudice, so it can be re-filed in the plaintiff’s local court. In practice, if you see a legal dispute on TV, you can assume the plaintiff asked to be there.

    The bad news: “Binding” means binding. When the voice-over on Judge Judy says “the rulings are final”, it isn’t kidding. Once you’ve had a case arbitrated, you can’t turn around and go back to court if you don’t like the decision. Your state law may allow appeals in some very narrow circumstances, but don’t bank on it.

    The good news: The kind of arbitration you see on courtroom TV is voluntary. Unlike an ordinary lawsuit, you can’t be ordered to appear, or risk losing by default. It isn’t enough for the plaintiff to be selected for the show; the defendant has to agree. Whether your average Judge Judy defendant understands this is a whole different question.

  2. The show will not only pay your travel expenses, it will pay the judgement.

    If you win, you get your money. You don’t have to hound the loser and file additional lawsuits to collect; the show itself pays you.

    If you lose, you’re not out anything.

    If you are legally in the right, you’re not likely to gain anything by going on TV. At best, you’ll win the case and get your money. At worst . . . you’ll lose, with no chance of appeal.

    If you are legally in the wrong, you can’t lose anything by agreeing to appear on TV. At worst, you’ll lose the case—but only on principle. You won’t be out any money. At best . . . the judge will make up some law she likes better than the real one, and you’ll win.