What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?

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Judge Judy reportedly makes $47 million a year. What kind of legal power comes with it?

While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge — New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to criminal court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986 — she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases — the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

From one of Judge Judy's old contracts: "The Arbitrator's Decision and her interpretation and application of laws and principles she uses in arriving at the Decision, shall be final and binding upon the parties hereto."

Court Costs

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants, and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability, and if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

While these court shows can be entertaining, social scientists and legal scholars worry about their effect on viewers' perception of how courts work and apply justice. In a survey of litigants in small claims court in 1988, the height of popularity of The People's Court, researchers were shocked by how often the show was mentioned when talking about expectations of the justice system, and suspected that the show may have had a major influence on some people's decision to even go to court and on the way they prepared their case.

Thanks to reader Marty for suggesting this Big Question.

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January 25, 2012 - 10:10am
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