Allegations of outrageous comments made by the television personality known as "Judge Judy," which she denies, provide an example of the power--and the potential for abuse--in television, this time in the context of our courts and the administration of justice.
Judith Sheindlin is reported to have said, while on a speaking tour of Australia last fall, that her answer to the free needle program intended to help alleviate the U.S. drug problem would be to "give them dirty needles and hope they die." If made, the comment, inappropriate and inhumane as it is, is bad enough. The greater problem in this and other such incidents, however, is that it involves someone whom the public erroneously believes to be a legitimate representative of the American judiciary.
As one who is involved with both television and the courts, I find it of particular concern that the current crop of pseudo-court shows is thought by the television audience to be authentic. This is evidenced by the fact that the public regularly submits complaints about Judge Judy and other TV judges to the state Commission on Judicial Performance. Obviously, many people don't understand that Judge Judy and most of her cohorts are not current members of any judiciary. While Sheindlin was once a judge in New York, to preside in TV courts, you don't even have to be a lawyer. All they have to be is brazen enough to put on a robe and pick up a gavel, and obnoxious enough to draw attention to themselves.
The judicial performance commission--of which I am a member--is an independent state agency made up of three actual judges, two lawyers and six members of the public. Commissioners meet seven to eight times a year to examine complaints against judges and administer discipline when warranted. The purpose of our work is to protect the public from exactly the kind of thoughtless, mean-spirited and destructive behavior that pours forth from the "courtrooms" of our television screens every day. It is thus a source of great frustration to us and, I have to assume, to the dedicated, intelligent, dignified and serious-minded jurists who make up the vast majority of the 1,600 members of California's judiciary, that what spews from the screens in their homes so misleads the public.
The rude, contentious and flagrantly biased histrionics that are the hallmarks of these shows are in direct contradiction to the standards mandated in the Code of Judicial Ethics and would be subject to scrutiny if they occurred in any courtroom. Canon 3 of the code provides that "a judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants . . . and others whom the judge deals with in an official capacity."
Because the code expressly recognizes that "public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges," Another canon requires a judge to act "at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." To this end, the code requires high standards of conduct, specifying that "the prohibition against behaving with impropriety or the appearance of impropriety applies to both the professional and personal conduct of a judge."
The Judge Judys of our world, proliferating as they are on television, speak to a volatile mix of elements in the American psyche: frustration, a sense of powerlessness, an almost prurient interest in the dark side of human behavior, fascination with the legal process and a desire for swift vengeance. Enabled by television's willingness to capitalize on anything that will draw an audience, no matter how degrading, the damage done by these TV judges and those who agree to air their cases in pseudo-courtrooms in exchange for money and 15 minutes of fame is considerable, if not yet fully calculable.
As television's treasury is fattened, the public's faith in the dignity of the courts is diminished. As standards for judicial conduct are set by impostors accountable to no one, their immature antics tarnish the reputation of dedicated public servants. Authentic judges have few effective means to counter this erosion of public expectations even as they are required to deal with inappropriate behavior of litigants, much of it imitative of what they've seen on "the tube." Frustration grows, and the attraction to the bench dims for those who have the qualities most needed: patience, dignity, reverence for the law and respect for the public.
As a commission member with an obligation to promote public confidence in the judiciary, I wish our authority extended into the "courtrooms" of Judge Judy and her kind. As a producer in the television industry, I'm saddened that my contemporaries apparently don't understand their obligation to the same public. Again quoting from the code: "Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute" does harm and requires discipline for the good of the community.
Who's minding the gavel?