Originally created 03/11/01

The verdict on court TV

Judge Wapner, Judge Judy, Judge Hatchett, Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mills Lane, Judge Dredd ...

OK, maybe not Judge Dredd. But he seems to be the only "judge" who's not on television these days.

Eleven "reality" court shows air in the Augusta area each weekday - 10 on local TV stations and back-to-back episodes of Animal Court each morning on cable's Animal Planet network. Viewers can watch eight hours of plaintiff-defendant disputes a day, including a three-hour block from 3 to 6 p.m. on WAGT-TV (Channel 26).

But just how real are these shows?

The Augusta Chronicle asked Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins to sit down and watch the shows so he could render a verdict on them. Judge Watkins watched videotaped episodes of the shows and evaluated them based on positive and negative aspects and their realism. He sometimes watched the shows, then let his opinions "crockpot" a while before returning to the tape.

Judge Watkins, who presides over misdemeanor criminal cases and civil cases, made more positive comments than negative ones about some of the shows. But overall the shows disturbed and saddened him, he said. He compared some to tabloid television and said that while their form - judge, lawyers, courtroom - was true, their substance was unrealistic.

"There seemed to be a theme that ran through a lot of the shows, and the formula was that it has to be somewhere on a spectrum from spicy to almost raunchy," he said. "And then, it had to be entertaining, even at the risk or expense of accuracy."

He also was shocked that the audiences sitting in the courtroom on many of the shows didn't seem to be fazed by the outlandish and embarrassing confessions of the litigants.

"People would say these things, and there would be no reaction from the audience," he said. It's as if it was expected, as if it wasn't disturbing at all. And not just the young audience. There were some older people I would have expected to have a more mature response.

"It's as if it's contributing not to the edification of society, but to the demeaning of it, to a further dumbing down of our basic standards of morality."


3 p.m. weekdays, WAGT-TV (Channel 26) (2.0 Nielsen rating)

The granddaddy of courtroom TV programs, the show is now headed by Jerry Sheindlin, a former New York criminal and Supreme Court judge and husband of Judge Judy's Judge Judy. The show, which ran for a dozen years and was revived three years ago, not only made Judge Wapner a household name but also pioneered minor celebrity status for the courtroom's "supporting cast", which includes "host" Harvey Levin, court reporter Curt Chaplin and bailiff Josephine Longobardi.

THE CASE AGAINST: Judge Sheindlin sometimes seemed to play too much to the audience. "He ended up losing the proper degree of decorum in the courtroom," Judge Watkins said.

MITIGATING FACTORS: "I was pleasantly surprised by this one - it emphasized that it was reality-based, not using actors or dramatizations," Judge Watkins said. The show clearly announced that real litigants were taking part in a binding case using actual law. Mr. Levin, an attorney, was able to discuss laws and explain them for the audience, encouraging them to think about solutions and problems from a realistic legal standpoint.

VERDICT: Educational and informative.


5 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays, WAGT-TV (Channel 26) (6.6 Nielsen rating, No. 4 syndicated program in the country)

Headed by Judith Sheindlin, a former New York family court judge, this show is one of the longest-running courtroom programs after People's Court and is in its fifth season. It has been parodied on Saturday Night Live, where comedians mocked the judge's aggressive courtroom manner, which brought her notoriety even before the show. The show's official Web site features sound bites of the judge telling litigants "You're a liar!" and "You're full of bologna, all right."

THE CASE AGAINST: "I've heard the rap against her is that she can be shrill and overbearing," Judge Watkins said.

MITIGATING FACTORS: The judge continually reinforced the idea that decisions would be dictated by the law and was able to intersperse what the law was and how it applied throughout her conversation, Judge Watkins said. While she was succinct and sometimes terse, she was short with participants in order to cut to the issues. "Sometimes judges will say, in so many words: `It's OK to dazzle me with facts, just don't baffle me with BS,"' Judge Watkins said.

VERDICT: This is shock treatment - that seems to work.


9 a.m. weekdays, WRDW-TV (Channel 12) (1.7 Nielsen rating)

Headed by James Curtis, a former California prosecutor, the show focuses on cases culled from small-claims court, including family members and neighbors getting down and dirty over unpaid bills, property damage and debts. The show also features beefcake bailiff Anthony.

THE CASE AGAINST: "The average courtroom is not that entertaining," Judge Watkins said. "Any judge worth his salt would try to minimize getting into nauseous, lurid detail." Typically, judges limit lurid descriptions in testimony or keep it clinical, not only as a matter of taste, but to avoid prejudicing themselves and a jury.

MITIGATING FACTORS: Mr. Curtis clearly explains the conflict between the parties at the beginning of the show and tries to give sound advice, Judge Watkins said.

VERDICT: "Base, pure pandering."


10 a.m. weekdays, WFXG-TV (Channel 54) (3.2 Nielsen rating)

Mablean Ephriam, a divorced mother of four and a former correctional officer and family-law attorney, heads this revival show looking at the many ways marriages fall apart. Also features Joseph Catalano Sr. as bailiff.

THE CASE AGAINST: "The point of this show seemed to be reveling in the sensational aspects of the parties' lives, instead of remaining above the fray," Judge Watkins said. Immaterial and titillating testimony was asked for, he added. "The judge would deviate from the raunchier aspects, but it seemed to be done solely to appear respectable. It was a camouflage."

MITIGATING FACTORS: Ms. Ephriam dispensed good advice and distinguished between love and lust. "So she did do something useful," Judge Watkins said.

VERDICT: "This show was about entertainment, not justice."


10 and 10:30 a.m. weekdays, Animal Planet network

The godfather of court TV shows, Joseph A. Wapner spent more than two decades on the Superior Court bench in California - then spent a dozen years on The People's Court when the show launched the idea of reality courtroom shows in 1981. Animal Court deals with the same kind of small claims, but all of the cases involve animals - veterinary malpractice, paternity suits, grooming accidents and custody battles. The animals themselves have been brought into the courtroom - including a horse. Bailiff Rusty Burrell, formerly of The People's Court, is back, too.


MITIGATING FACTORS: "From what I've known and seen of him, he's probably the same in a courtroom in real life as he is in a courtroom on television."

VERDICT: Realistic


10 a.m. weekdays, WJBF-TV (Channel 6) (4.0 Nielsen rating)

Headed by Joe Brown, a former criminal court judge in Memphis, Tenn. He was the judge assigned to reopen the case against James Earl Ray, convicted assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. The show, which covers small claims such as neighborly property damage disputes, also features bailiff Holly Evans and court reporter Jacque Kessler, a former broadcast journalist.

THE CASE AGAINST: Having seen the show in the past, Judge Watkins wondered if it was "entertaining" enough to survive.

MITIGATING FACTORS: "He impressed me as more judicious - as the most like judges I know and have seen in the courtroom," Judge Watkins said. "How he conducted himself seemed realistic to me."

VERDICT: A sign of hope that shows don't have to exaggerate or distort.


10:30 a.m. weekdays, WFXG-TV (Channel 54) (2.2 Nielsen rating)

Headed by Glenda Hatchett, who served for eight years as judge of the Fulton County juvenile court in Georgia after working as a corporate attorney for Delta Airlines. The show features small-claims cases and family spats.

THE CASE AGAINST: "She failed to maintain order in the courtroom," Judge Watkins said. "There was a sense things were spiraling out of control between the litigants." Judge Hatchett also prompted the parties to discuss seamy details of their relationship even though they were unnecessary to the case and seemed to try to hook the audience with prurient detail, he said.

MITIGATING FACTORS: The judge is sharp and knowledgeable, quickly identified the issues and gave reasons for decisions, Judge Watkins said.

VERDICT: Exploitation - of both participants and the audience.


9:30 a.m. weekdays, WRDW-TV (Channel 12) (2.6 Nielsen rating)

Headed by Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, the show gives litigants high-profile attorneys to represent them in small-claims cases. Lawyers include O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden; Dominic Barbara, whose clients have included Jessica Hahn and Joey Buttafuco; and Shawn Chapman, who has represented Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, Larry Johnson and Master P. Bailiff Joseph Catalano Jr. is the son of Divorce Court bailiff Joseph Catalano Sr.

THE CASE AGAINST: "This showed the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect of attorneys," Judge Watkins said. Attorneys on the show demonstrated a misuse of their abilities, including misleading people, playing on their emotions and prejudices and manipulating them.

MITIGATING FACTORS: Attorneys also demonstrated their more benevolent qualities, including the ability to get to the heart of a legal matter, Judge Watkins said. Judge Napolitano controlled the courtroom and enforced the rules.

VERDICT: Misleading. "It tried to pass off what's seen as successful entertainment - lewd and sexual material - as a reality-based courtroom show."


10:30 a.m. weekdays, WJBF-TV (Channel 6) (1.8 Nielsen rating)

Headed by Savannah native Mills Lane, a former Marine, Nevada district court judge and professional boxer whose signature phrase is "Let's get it on!" The show's official Web site has a "Let's get it on" feature with a scowling, animated version of the bald judge wearing black robes and red boxing gloves, throwing punches.

THE CASE AGAINST: A character by nature, Judge Lane conducts his court the way he might referee a fight, Judge Watkins said.

MITIGATING FACTORS: "You might be able to argue with his methods, but not his use of the rules," Judge Watkins said with a laugh. "You may not like how he goes about doing it, but it's hard to ever question whether he had the right to make a certain call."

VERDICT: Bare-knuckled but between-the-lines.


11 a.m. weekdays, WFXG-TV (Channel 54) (0.9 Nielsen rating)

Headed by talk-radio personality Larry Elder, the show is a "court of ethics," not a legal court. Mr. Elder hears complaints from people who think someone has acted wrongly (a recent example: a woman whose fiance had sex with her while she was on painkillers for a broken arm and too zonked-out to tell him "no"), then makes a decision. Plaintiffs are awarded up to $2,000 to soothe their moral outrage.

THE CASE AGAINST: The shows seems to follow the premise that racy subject matter gets top ratings, Judge Watkins said. He felt some of the details was tawdry, and he was concerned about the lack of reaction from participants and the in-studio audience to extreme behavior - including a lack of understanding that, as Mr. Elder pointed out, having sex with someone too drugged to say " no" is rape.

MITIGATING FACTORS: The show was candid about its purpose, to combine the drama of a courtroom, the details of a talk show and the reward of a game show. "It didn't pretend to be what it's not," Judge Watkins said.

VERDICT: Refreshingly honest, yet disturbing in its content.


4 p.m. weekdays, WAGT-TV (Channel 26) (2.2 rating)

Headed by Greg Mathis, a former gang member who served jail time, as well as a Wayne County criminal court judge in Detroit, where the show is filmed.

THE CASE AGAINST: There was no indication that the audience in the courtroom was learning from the situations the litigants were in, Judge Watkins said. "I watched this after watching People's Court, and I felt that, unlike the previous show, this one didn't engage or encourage the audience," he said.

MITIGATING FACTORS: This show also emphasizes the use of real-world litigants, problems and laws and seems to be able to balance entertainment with information, he said. Judge Mathis "has an engaging presence, and this allowed him to pull off being humorous without seeming frivolous, undignified and manipulative. He didn't seem to be distracted by the camera and didn't play to the audience, and that made the show seem appealing."

VERDICT: Realistic but not as compelling for the audience as it could be.

Online justice

The Ultimate Judge Show Page: www.tvjudgeshows.com

Curtis Court: www.curtis-court.com

Power of Attorney: www.powerofattorneytv.com

Judge Joe Brown: www.judgejoebrown.com

Divorce Court www.divorcecourttv.com

Judge Mills Lane www.judgemillslane.com

Judge Hatchett www.judgehatchett.com

Moral Court: www.moralcourttv.com

People's Court www.peoplescourt.com

Judge Mathis (unofficial) www.realestatebydesign.cc/judgemathis.htm

Judge Judy www.judgejudy.com

Reach: Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223.


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