Posted by Austin Morris on  UTC 2016-12-20 13:15

In my very, very limited experience very few television programmes are worth watching. One of those few is the American series Judge Judy. Every day for the last 20 years the programme has been shown somewhere in the English-speaking world. It features a former US Family Court judge, Judith Scheindlin, her faithful Court Bailiff, Officer Byrd, the litigants, their witnesses and a small, well-behaved audience.

A real courtroom and a real judge

There have been other 'court' shows, but whereas these have been run more or less like freak shows for the amusement of the mob, Judge Scheindlin keeps a tight legal hold on proceedings: the audience is discouraged from over-reaction and litigants are discouraged from grandstanding. Cameras do not swoop around the studio, the set is scrappy and the sound quality not always what it should be. Although the court is legally only an arbitration court, the formalities are preserved and the proceedings are always decorous.

As for Judge Scheindlin herself, the girl was eventually taken out of Brooklyn, but Brooklyn never left the girl: the most long-winded pleas are brusquely reduced to their justiciable core. The tap on the wristwatch and the reminder to the wordy that lunchtime is approaching has become one of the fixed motives of the programme. Complaining, 'kvetching', is not tolerated. Yiddish expressions are very rare, but used occasionally, like a good seasoning, to enhance flavour. Even though recorded in California, the programme goes to some lengths to preserve a no-nonsense, New York identity.

Officer Byrd is an imposing physical presence, there not only to announce the cases and fetch and carry documents but also to calm troublemakers when necessary. It is part of the charm of the program that he, having heard it all before, also in Judge Scheindlin's Family Court days, often appears to be discreetly doing puzzles on his clipboard. His general demeanour, though always respectful of Judge Scheindlin, is never servile.

The show seems to be doing everything right: after 20 years its ratings are stable or even increasing.

Legality and fairness

Judge Scheindlin does not go outside legal boundaries, but within them she often emphasises the need to be fair and apply commonsense in order to reach settlements that are not only legally correct but also morally grounded in a way that all her viewers can recognise.

In one case, for example, a man bought a car for $1,500 on eBay, paid for it in advance and travelled a long way to collect the vehicle. The handover took place in a carpark. When the man tried to drive the car away it would not move, by which time the woman selling the car had disappeared. The purchaser left the car in the carpark and did not transfer the title. After a while the parking tickets had mounted up, the car was impounded and the woman had to pay around $2,000 of fines and impound costs. The woman had had difficulties with the vehicle since she had bought it a few months before and had clearly tried to shift the 'lemon' onto some simpleton.

She brazenly took the man to court to recover the fines, but both plaintiff and defendant were sent away with a severe telling off: the plaintiff for sharp practice and the defendant for his stupidity in buying a car so carelessly. Both lost their claims. The defendant was indeed a simpleton who right to the end failed to grasp why he wasn't getting his money back. Viewers take away the message: buyers need to exercise reasonable caution and sellers ought to be honest about what they are selling.

Over the last 20 years, day-in, day-out, viewers have seen thousands of examples of commonsense legal and moral decisions that have given practical advice on so many aspects of modern life: loans that suddenly become gifts or are somehow 'forgiven'; bitter property disputes between unmarried couples, usually with children in the middle; feuds between divorced couples still rumbling along decades after the decree; restitution of all sorts of damage, whether due to out-of-control children, ditto dogs, ditto cars, ditto drunks.

The dissembling arguments and skewed logic of those at fault are depressingly entertaining. Every viewer can enjoy these embarrassing excuses, not without feeling some embarrassment themselves, for many of these excuses are based on the sort of sophistry that tempts us all when we are in a fix.

Judge Scheindlin tries to make the damaged participants whole. Unfortunately, the parties who have caused the damage only have to suffer the humiliation meted out to them in front of many millions of viewers. Monetary awards are paid by the television company, which means that for many claimants, proceeding with a small claims action against some penniless no-hoper on Judge Judy is about their only hope of ever getting any money back. This is the only drawback to the programme: viewers know that debtors can walk away from the programme debt free.

The human comedy, not at all funny

'All human life is there' was the advertising slogan all those years ago of the now defunct newspaper the News of the World. That could just as easily be said of Judge Judy. Over the last twenty years viewers have watched a parade of defective humanity pass across their screens that requires us to go back to Dante to find its equal. The programme is, in fact, better than the Divina Commedia, without any doubt.

Feckless teens and feckless cohabitants and feckless parents, enormous numbers living on welfare, foodstamps, education grants and disability payments. People living from hand-to-mouth who can only rob Peter to pay Paul. Many cases of damage to humans and animals caused by dogs – the dog almost invariably turns out to be a Pitbull or Rottweiler. Judge Scheindlin has immense contempt for malingerers and the idle, for teens who hook up, make a baby, set up house, live together for a few months and then split up and expect her to sort out the rubble of their feckless lives. One of the most frequent offenders crops up even in ostensibly unrelated cases: the parent who does not pay child support. As a result of her long experience in the Family Courts Judge Scheindlin knows every trick and turn in parenting cases, such as the use of 'proactive' restraining orders to gain an advantage in divorce or custody battles, or the malicious use of calls to Child Protective Services to get some revenge.

Viewers watch amazed at the lengths to which people will go to milk the welfare system; amazed at the number of people who do not have bank accounts and live a totally cash-based existence; the number of people who don't have $20 to their name to pay an unexpected bill; the number of women without any income who have multiple children from multiple fathers and, conversely, the fathers who have multiple children by multiple 'baby-mothers'; the number of people who get themselves bailed out of jail by borrowed and never repaid money; the hilarious dissembling of the participants in road rage incidents or other road accidents; the number of near-scrap vehicles on the road, most of them being driven around without insurance, registration or road tax; the crazy behaviour of drunks; people who let a room in their home out to complete strangers found on the internet; arguments that start with 'disrespect' and descend into mindless violence – property smashed up, mobile phones thrown out of moving vehicles, paintwork keyed, windscreens smashed, car bodywork kicked in, doors smashed off their hinges and that incomprehensible favourite, holes punched into walls. Case after case of outbursts of sudden, uncontrolled rage by the 'disrespected' and the deceived.

A window into a broken society

We viewers get the impression that the police forces of the USA seem to spend huge amounts of time mediating between inadequates involved in domestic disputes. The definition of assault as 'putting your hands on someone' gives them plenty of work to do. Every one of these interventions generates a multi-page police report. Judge Judy gives us an insight into the innards of a society gone seriously wrong.

Despite an immensely expensive and widespread system of public education in the USA, many of the litigants are unable to string one grammatical sentence together. They live in a completely oral culture without any contact with the 'high' language. Judge Scheindlin sometimes corrects some of the more excruciating examples of demotic English, but there is a limit: this is a courtroom, not a schoolroom. We have to ask, what have all the teachers been doing all these years?

The black, the white and the hispanic tribes are all represented. Amusingly, the producer of the programme was accused of racism in 2007 for his efforts to prevent the over-representation of black litigants and the over-exposure of their 'ghetto' ways. It is fair to say that on Judge Judy, each litigant has the opportunity to correspond to racial stereotypes if they so wish. There are also plenty of cases where the upstanding black or hispanic litigant's decorous conduct stands out just as much as that of any upstanding white litigant, just as there are feckless blacks, hispanics and whites.

The modern morality play

The series is a slow-burner, developing its effect over time. Episodes come and go and viewers start to see patterns, they start to see the generic peccadillos of mankind: out of the overlaying of specifics, a moral perspective arises. One episode is interesting, a hundred episodes are illuminating and two hundred instructive. Judge Judy is indeed the modern-day Divina Commedia: a long, depressing but essential read for contemporary man. Perhaps the programme's position in the TV schedules is the best place it could be to reach the widest audience and thus effect its moral purpose. Perhaps it should even be regular viewing for schoolchildren: at least it would be more use than the current teaching of English.

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