Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


You Don't Know America

judy

Judge Judy. (Photo: CBS Television)

Judge Judy Is a National Treasure

• February 20, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Judge Judy. (Photo: CBS Television)

With her popular syndicated television show—now in its 19th year—Judith Sheindlin protects the reasonable American’s notion of accountability and justice, reassuring us that offenders will be punished and victims compensated.

Forget about GirlsHomelandNew GirlScandal, and The Mindy Project. Television has had a strong female lead for decades: Her name is Judith Sheindlin.

Judge Judy premiered in 1996, and just got renewed through 2017. The show dominates daytime television, even edging out Oprah in reruns. While most television shows fight to hang onto viewership, Judge Judy’s grows. President Obama, Anderson Cooper, and Katie Couric all want her audience, and most television actors would kill for her $47 million annual salary.

Who makes up Sheindlin’s much-coveted daytime audience? Older women, African Americans, and Latinos. You might think Judge Judy is most popular with those who feel most disenfranchised by our legal system, but it’s hardly that simple. Part of the appeal is personal: her viewers’ loyalty is rivaled only by her own, and they know it. When a former bailiff who knew Sheindlin from her time as a family court judge in Manhattan wrote to congratulate her on the show, he quipped, “If you ever need a bailiff, I still look good in uniform.” She called as soon as she got the note, and he’s been by her onscreen side since. But Americans’ love of Judge Judy is more than personal: it’s symbolic.

“Consider yourself having been reasonably humiliated in front of 10 million people. Now, without saying another word, turn around, and find the exit. Goodbye.”

Sheindlin’s audience considers her a real-life kind of superhero: a no-nonsense, sassy arbiter of justice who punishes the guilty, scolds the swindlers, and defends the little guy. She does what we want the justice system to do for us. My grandmother delights in watching Judge Judy lay down the law once a day in a routine that pairs Sheindlin’s acerbic commentary with Splenda-sweetened vanilla ice cream. It isn’t just that the “judge” delivers snappy one-liners: it’s that she deals them out even-handedly. One cousin, a business professional, has a standing date to watch Judge Judy in the evening with her seven-year-old daughter. She tells me, “We like watching her figure out who’s telling the truth by asking a lot of seemingly unrelated questions.” I suspect her precocious daughter likes the idea that even adults can get in trouble.

Judge Judy can be showy, but rarely gratuitously so, and she’s smart—and doesn’t let anyone forget it. In a given case, Judge Judy might paraphrase Mark Twain (“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to have a good memory; if you lie, you’re always tripping over your own tie”) or offer a common-sense connection to her own life (“The toilet broke while she was using it—that doesn’t mean that she broke it, and it doesn’t mean that she’s responsible for it! Toilets break—I had one just break in my apartment last week!”). Most satisfyingly, she tells it like it is: “Consider yourself having been reasonably humiliated in front of 10 million people. Now, without saying another word, turn around, and find the exit. Goodbye.”

Sheindlin’s persona is key to the show’s success, but so are the cases themselves. Judge Judy chooses cases that resonate with her audience. The most pervasive forms of injustice affecting Americans rarely get investigated, much less prosecuted, by the state; they’re “little” things: a dented car door, an unreturned security deposit, or an unfair asset split after a bad break-up. Citizens can usually only take action by bringing suit in small claims courts, navigating the complicated court system on their own. These courts hear lawsuits for claims that fall under a certain dollar amount that varies by state, from $10,000 in California to $5,000 in North Carolina; plaintiffs and defendants usually represent themselves.

A small claims court’s decisions relate to daily life, more so than virtually any other court. For most of us, there’s nothing “small” about the types of problems that end up in such courts: $500 is a lot of money, never mind $5,000. These courts address commonplace questions of fairness: How can I be made whole again after someone has damaged my property or violated an agreement? When does a promise become legally binding? The answers these courts supply reflect upon our justice system writ large and the society behind it.

Judge Judy employs 60 to 65 researchers to visit courthouses around the country, where, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they can gain access to small claims filings. Promising candidates get sent back to the show’s producers, who assess their appeal. Some of their criteria are drama-based, like one producer’s affinity for disputes involving “prior relationships” (preferably “boyfriend-girlfriend, mother-daughter, father-son, father-brother, sister-sister”), but for the most part the show’s producers look for relatable cases: unfair billing practices, corrupt landlords, petty vandalism, unpaid child support, and family loan sharks. Selected participants sign a waiver to appear on the show, agreeing that Judge Judy’s decision is binding and they will not pursue the case elsewhere, and, in return, they receive a flat fee for making an appearance.

That’s where the fun begins. Defendants are announced by Sheindlin’s trusty bailiff, then appear before her in a mock court room. Judge Judy asks a lot of questions, identifies factual disputes, and parses “the question of law,” as a law professor would call it, for all to hear. Viewers who will never read a court transcript or slog through the lines of a judicial opinion get to hear a real-time approximation of judicial reasoning.

Many Judge Judy cases, even the most outrageous, speak to the everyday injustices suffered by most Americans. Who hasn’t had an unreasonable landlord they wished to have exposed and penalized? Who wouldn’t want to see an unruly neighbor with a penchant for scratching your car ordered to cover the repairs? By legitimating and rectifying the types of injustices that often make us feel helpless, Sheindlin reaffirms that justice is attainable. Because of shows like hers, we feel there is a way to seek fairness and accountability.

Of course, not everyone adores Judge Judy. The American Bar Association published an essay calling what Judge Judy and her colleagues do “syndi-court justice” (PDF) and accusing them of exploiting arbitration. They worry she’ll corrupt potential jurors and distort the justice system. The argument that Judge Judy is a threat to the jury system seems to forget the First Amendment—and, more importantly, the several amendments that tell us our Founding Fathers trusted juries. As a favorite law school professor, Akhil Reed Amar, wrote, “No idea was more central … to America’s distinctive regime of government of the people, by the people, and for the people—than the idea of the jury.” But not only are such criticisms constitutionally questionable, they’re empirically unfounded—like the supposed “CSI Effect,” the since-debunked theory that jurors who watched crime dramas would expect “too much scientific evidence.” Then there’s the commonsense protest: there are no juries on Judge Judy. She simulates a bench trial, not a jury trial.

Why do we love Judge Judy? Sheindlin hears and protects the reasonable American’s notion of accountability and justice. It doesn’t matter that she isn’t actually running a small claims court: she’s managing arbitration on the same issues. Judge Judy proves courts can right wrongs and guarantee future protections, perhaps the most basic foundation of an organized society. That means Judith Sheindlin plays a role in shaping and upholding our social contract. Witnessing successful legal proceedings, even in a simulated small claims setting, reassures citizens: offenders will be punished; victims will be compensated. Judge Judy might not be the most powerful judge in America, but she’s surely the most popular and the best paid—for good reason.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza attended Harvard College and Yale Law School. She has written on law and politics for the Nation, the Atlantic, Politico, the Daily Beast, and CNN, and co-authored James Carville’s 40 More Years. Follow her on Twitter @rpbp.

More From Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.