Will the Real Judge Stand-Up:
Virtual Integration on TV Reality Court Shows
by Taunya Lovell Banks
Reality court shows have been around since the mid 1980s when
Judge Joseph A. Wapner, a retired member of the Los Angeles County
bench, handled small claims cases, on The People's Court.
Although not a ratings smash, The People's Court was successful
enough, and in a classic example fiction merging with legal reality,
Judge "Wapner became America's most famous jurist better
known, said the polls, than United States Supreme Court Chief
Justice William H. Rehnquist." Almost twenty years later,
television reality court shows have replaced soap operas as the
top daytime viewing genre.
On shows like The
People's Court the "judge" is the center of attention
due in part to the absence of lawyers. While the absence of lawyers
is not unusual in pro se courts, Divorce Court suggests pro se
representation also is the norm in family court. Thus, viewers
like Anthony Widgeon mistakenly think they know how the family
court system works from watching Judge Judy and Judge
Joe Brown, the two most popular daytime court reality television
programs on commercial television. Instead, when Mr. Widgeon
appeared in circuit court on a domestic matter without legal
representation, he quickly ended up in jail. He mistakenly thought
he could delay his case by making a motion for a continuance.
Real court, however, is not like
Judge Judy. Daytime reality television court shows are
real fake courts involving minor, even petty matters. Ads for
some shows tout them as offering the viewers real judges, real
disputes and real justice. What the promotions for these shows
do not clearly disclose is that what we are seeing is a distorted
form of arbitration portrayed as a real trial. In truth, television
syndicators hire the "judges" most, but not all, of
whom are former real-life judges, seeks out and pays litigants
to present their case before television cameras in courtroom
settings constructed by producers.
Despite their entertainment value, the impact of reality court
shows on viewer's perceptions of the legal system cannot be over
estimated. Two social scientists writing in 1988 about litigant's
expectations of the civil justice systems were struck by litigants'
repeated references in small claims court to The People's
Court. They wrote "we now suspect that the television
program is a significant factor in many litigants' decisions
to go to small claims courts and an important influence on the
way they prepare their
cases." These studies fail to address whether contemporary
reality court shows' educational function is overshadowed by
what some argue is a gross distortion of the judicial system,
an important American institution. Also unclear is whether these
court shows reflect reality, or create a false realty so powerful
that it overshadows conventional public perceptions about the
actual civil court system in America.
For more than forty years, television has been a window to our
world, shaping our image of local and world events. Today approximately
100 million American homes have television sets. In 1995 it was
estimated that collectively, Americans watch over 120 billion
hours of television each year. Television is a primary news source
for most Americans, and "an almost constant companion of
many." Studies of television viewing audiences find that
women, especially women over 50, watch more television than men;
blacks watch more television than whites; and less educated and
less affluent Americans watch more television than more educated
and more affluent Americans.
Given the pervasiveness of television, its power to affect and
define how the viewing audience perceives the legitimacy of public
and private institutions of power is great. The resulting public
perceptions about institutions like the court may affect whether
the institutional failings are corrected. One clear distortion
of the American judicial system present in the TV reality court
shows is the representation of judges.
During the 2000-2001 television season there were nine reality
court shows in syndication, The People's Court, Judge Judy,
Judge Joe Brown, Divorce Court, Judge Hatchett, Judge Greg Mathis,
Curtis Court, Judge Mills Lane, and Moral Court.
Six of the nine judges were male, two were white, and four were
black. Three judges were women, one white woman, Judge Judy and
two black women, Judge Hatchett, and Mablean Ephraim on Divorce
Court. When the 2001-2002 television season began, there were
eight daytime court shows, and none of the judges were white
males. In January 2002 Larry Joe Doherty, a white male, aired
on a new show entitled Texas Justice. When the 2002-2003 season
began seven shows remained with three male and four female judges.
The fourth woman was Judge Marilyn Milian, a Cuban American,
who took over The People's Court. Of the seven current
television judges, only Judge Doherty is white and male.
In real life, however, most judges are white and male. Only 3.3%
of all judges in the United States are black, and the percentages
are even lower for Latinas/os and Asian Americans. Women comprise
only 7% are of all federal judges and 9% of all state judges.
The percentage of black women judges is even lower than the percentages
for blacks and women generally. Thus, it is surprising that two
black women, one Cuban American woman, one white woman, two black
men and only one white man preside over the seven reality court
television shows that air daily in most major cities.
Perhaps the overrepresentation of women, blacks and black males
on TV reality court shows simply reflects network attempts to
reach targeted viewing audiences. Yet this over representation
is not only a distortion of actual judicial demographics in the
United States, it also is a distortion of demographic make-up
of the television population generally. A recent survey of the
small screen by Children Now found that only 17% of the prime
time television population is black; 75% of the prime time television
population is white. Women account for only a third of prime
time television characters.
The Children Now study concedes that increasingly women are portrayed
on television as professionals like lawyers and doctors, and
whites and blacks "appear with about equal frequency as
physicians, attorneys and in service/retail/restaurants jobs."
Thus, television creates the impression that women and non-whites,
primarily black male lawyers, are well represented in the legal
Whatever the reasons, the over representation of women and non-white
judges on reality court shows, coupled with the perceived over
representation of black judges on television in general, is problematic
in the highly racialized society in which we live. The over representation
of women and black male judges on television not only sends an
erroneous message about the extent of their representation in
the judiciary, but may actually undermine popular support for
increased racial and gender diversity on the bench by suggesting
that our nation's benches are already diverse, or that blacks
and/or women have taken over the courts.
Arguably, the overrepresentation of women and black men on daytime
reality court shows creates a "'synthetic experience,' a
substitute for reality that feels real." Leonard Steinhorn
and Barbara Diggs-Brown argue in their book, BY THE COLOR OF
OUR SKIN: THE ILLUSION OF INTEGRATION AND THE REALITY OF RACE,
that "the average white American family. . . . see[s] more
blacks beamed into their living room on a typical evening than
they have seen at any other time or place during the day. . .
. creating the impression that the world is more integrated than
it truly is." They call this phenomenon virtual integration.
Thus, it is conceivable that the composition of daytime reality
court shows misleads viewers about the racial and gender composition
of real judges.
On television the court room is integrated. On the shows the
race of the bailiff is always different from the race of the
judge. Also male judges tend to have female bailiffs and female
judges tend to have male bailiffs. Since all the shows share
this feature, clearly race and gender are factors considered
by snydicators. Perhaps syndicators realize that integrated courtrooms
with women and black judges appeal to television audiences. The
presence of women and non-white judges in integrated settings
reassure viewers that justice in the United States is meted out
impartially. While there are positive aspects to this portrayal
of the courts, there are negative aspects as well.
One political scientist speculates that white's misperceptions
about blacks' standing in American society make be the result
of the success of some blacks. "As the black middle class
swells, more whites see blacks who have the same skills, earn
the same money, and live in the same kinds of neighborhoods,"
and the increased sense of competition these observations engender
in white Americans. It is no surprise that whites with the greatest
misperceptions about the socio-economic status of blacks are
less educated and affluent. Since less affluent and educated
viewers are some of the same people who watch more daytime television,
the possibility of the distorted information about the gender
and racial composition of the judiciary is increased.
When virtual integration actually occurs, it easy for this group
of whites viewers to doubt claims of the under representation
of women and non-whites in the judiciary and the need for American
society to make meaningful steps to address this problem. The
fantasy of a racially integrated society keeps many whites from
confronting how little contact they have with non-whites, especially
black Americans, in real life. Given these concerns, reality
television court shows bear closer examination.
Overall, the women judges, especially Judge Judy, the prototype
for the new daytime reality court shows, come off as shrill.
Judge Mablean Ephraim is an especially discomforting television
image with her harsh sermons, mammy-like physique and gestures.
Glenda Hatchett, initially more reserved during her first season,
has become increasingly shrill as her show lags behind Judge
Judy, Judge Joe Brown and Divorce Court in the ratings.
A brief comparison of The People's Court and Judge
Judy with Divorce Court and Judge Hatchett
suggests that the two black women judges, in varying degrees
go beyond the legal framework of the law to help litigants resolve
their problems. The willingness of judges to openly go beyond
the law can be seen by the viewing audience as either a positive
or negative attribute. Viewers who do not have much faith in
the American judicial system might feel more positively about
using the system to resolve grievances.
On the other hand, other viewers may conclude, especially when
comparing Divorce Court and Judge Hatchett with
The People's Court and Judge Judy, that black women
judges, like the black jurors in the O.J. Simpson case, routinely
nullify or disregard the law. As a result, these viewers may
be less inclined to support the election or appointment of black
women judges in real life. It is simply too early to know whether
this suspicion is true or false, but the impact of these two
shows on viewer perceptions about the courts and judges bears
Even if one concludes that the over representation of women and
non-white male judges on reality court shows distorts the civil
justice system, there is no clear linkage between over representation
on television, and under representation in real court rooms across
the nation. The long-term impact, if any, is something to be
monitored. Nevertheless, one should not under estimate the power
of virtual integration in shaping public perceptions.
Posted January 16, 2003