There's no justice like show justice


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"All rise," jut-jawed Bailiff Doyle Devereux calls out, and the 30 or so people in the courtroom dutifully stand as Judge Greg Mathis enters and takes his place behind the bench. The plaintiff and defendant come in one at a time, then tell their stories.

The plaintiff, a chunky blond woman, is charging that she has had medical expenses arising from the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of the defendant. He is tall, skinny, scruffy and -- testimony will show -- a ne'er-do-well. (She, at least, had employment as a professional "escort.") The judge listens to both sides, shooting some witty zingers at the man, then decides for the plaintiff. The gavel falls; the parties are quickly ushered out separate doors; the audience applauds.

The applause is a tip-off that Mathis' courtroom is not a typical judicial space. Along with the dark stained wood and frosted glass, there is a grid of spotlights where the ceiling would be. And, tucked behind some wall panels, TV cameras. Here, in the NBC Tower in Chicago, and in surprisingly many such faux courtrooms across America, justice meets show business.

"They began to be popular when talk shows would bring up topics and discuss them but there'd be no resolution," said Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Media in New York.

He advises some 450 local TV stations across the country. "The court shows have the topics talk does, but there's a resolution. The judges on the shows could do talk shows; they have strong personalities ranging from likable to authoritative and everything in between."

Marlyn Robinson of the Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas says courtroom reality shows began burgeoning about five years ago and agrees that they have since peaked at the current 13 shows.

Robinson, who founded the University of Texas' pop culture in law collection back in the 1980s, traced the origins of such TV shows back to "They Stand Accused," which aired from 1949 to 1954 on the DuMont Television Network and was broadcast live from the WGN television studios in Chicago.

"The shows started out as re-enactments of real criminal trials and were based on an earlier radio show that aired as a mystery. The radio show left it up to the audience to decide on a conviction," she said.

As for the current shows, their relatively cheap production costs add to their viability.

"You tape a number of cases a day for maybe three straight days," Carroll said, "and you've got enough for several shows. Once you build the set and have the staff to bring in the cases, the expenses aren't bad."

What do the litigants get out of it? In addition to a nominal appearance fee, "some people just want to get on TV," he said, "Some want their story to get out there. Some want to embarrass the other person. For the producers, the viewers, the participants, it's a win-win-win."

The modern reality courtroom genre, based in the realm of small claims court, began with "The People's Court," starring retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner. It ran from 1981 to 1993 and since has been revived with various judges.

"I played it straight," said Wapner, 89. "Sometimes something funny would happen, but I acted always as a judge should act and would explain California law so both litigants and viewers could understand. It was educational, but it must have entertained as well or it wouldn't have been on so long.

"A lot of the judges on these shows now play it just for entertainment. They berate litigants, don't treat them with respect. They're just creating a space to sell ads. I don't watch them."

But clearly others are watching.

"Judge Judy" has been the ratings leader among court reality shows with about 10 million viewers daily (75 percent women). Her ratings in November were 4.7, nearly double her closest competitor, "Judge Joe Brown," which had 2.4. For comparison, Oprah Winfrey's show had a 5.6, Dr. Phil a 3.5, Jerry Springer was 1.1, Martha Stewart 0.07.

Many of the people who show up in television's reality courtrooms come seeking a sympathetic hearing, maybe knowing that they won't have to pay a judgment, maybe just to be on TV. The judges often urge them to take responsibility for their acts, a thought that seems foreign to many.

The parties -- you could think of them as contestants -- seem to stem from dysfunctional families, romances gone sour, roommates from hell. They tend to be on the lower rungs of the ladder of success, and many have had previous brushes with the law in criminal courts.

Here are other details common to the shows: The parties in each case have agreed in advance to take the case out of the court system, bring it to the reality show and abide by the decision the arbiter hands down.

They, and their witnesses, have been paid an appearance fee ($100 to $200) plus travel and hotel expenses and a daily stipend for incidental expenses.

By the time they take the stand, the participants likely will have been coached by the producers to emphasize the sexiest elements (which often aren't pertinent to the issue) of their stories.

These people represent themselves; there are no lawyers.

Most feature a retired judge acting as an arbiter in actual civil cases involving relatively small amounts of money (less than $5,000, usually the limit in actual small claims courts).

Judgments are paid by the producers of the show, which recruits cases on the show, on the show's Web site and through recruiters watching case filings in courtrooms across the country.



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