I admit it: I can’t get enough of Judge Judy. Since I slave over this blog at home, I’ve put myself under a hard-and-fast interdiction against daytime television, which, as everyone knows, is the most entertaining television around. Every once in a while, however, I can’t resist sneaking downstairs to watch Manhattan jurist/superstar Judith Sheindlin lay down the law–literally–on the whining, lying wrongdoers who show up in her NBC courtroom with their pathetic, self-serving passel of excuses. You can never fool Judge Judy. But what I like best about her–and why the rest of America loves her, too–is that Judge Judy, along the other popular daytime-TV judges and even talk-show hosts who draw high ratings, affirms clear moral standards of behavior that we don’t hear much about elsewhere from our studiously non-judgmental media. There’s right and there’s wrong, Judge Judy tells us, and there are consequences to be had for crossing the line, in the form of Judge Judy’s justice. She tells us the things that deep down in our hearts we know are true.
Now comes Harry Stein’s wonderful article in this spring’s City Journal offering a paen of praise to Judge Judy and her equally tough-as-nails daytime-TV judicial counterparts, Marilyn Millian of CBS’s The People’s Court and Judge Joe Brown, who in my market follows Judge Judy on NBC. One wonderful thing, Stein points out, is that Millian, Brown and several other of these no-nonsense jurists belong to ethnic minorities but haven’t bought into the all-too-familiar victimology peddled by the self-appointed official spokesmen for these groups. Quite the contrary: They all send the same message that individuals are responsible for their own behavior–a stance that clearly resonates with the shows’ vast audiences.
Here’s Stein on Judge Judy:
“Anyone who comes before her court who has failed to behave well’whether by ignoring a contract or just fudging the truth’can expect the fourth degree, often followed by a dose of withering sarcasm or outright scorn. ‘Don’t try and pull the wool over my eyes,’ she has warned hundreds of times, ‘I’m smarter than you!’
One particularly satisfying recent case pitted a young motorcycle cop against a young California woman, who’d brought along her parents to testify on her behalf. It seemed that after the cop had stopped the attractive and self-assured woman for speeding, she let it drop that her father was himself an officer, recently retired. Then, as the motorcycle cop wrote out her ticket, she called her dad on her cell phone, got out of the car, and said: ‘My father wants to speak to you.’
The officer, annoyed, refused to take the phone and, as the young woman indignantly put it, ‘stuck his hand in my face’ and ordered her back into the car. She got her ticket. On returning home, she fired off a letter to the cop’s department complaining about his ostensibly rude behavior.
“Throughout their daughter’s account, the parents stood proudly at her side, confident of vindication. After all, hadn’t the officer been needlessly rude? And why hadn’t he done them the courtesy of taking the phone, when, as they put it, the father only wished to discuss the car’s paperwork?
“Talk about foolish! Hadn’t they ever seen the show? Did they have no idea who they were dealing with? The storm swiftly broke. Judge Judy, her voice dripping contempt, tore into the three of them. What did they think she was, stupid?! The girl was ‘a spoiled brat,’ the parents enablers. How dare they try to pretend their intent hadn’t been to induce the cop to forgo the ticket! And how utterly loathsome that they’d try to wreck this honest cop’s career by placing a nasty letter in his file! And, to the parents: ‘Don’t try to tell me you didn’t help write it!’ By the time she finished, the three of them fairly slunk out of court.”
Stein has similar admiring words for Brown, an African-American former criminal-courts judge from Memphis who grew up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood and is possibly even tougher on wrongdoers than Judge Judy. Stein writes:
“As Ebony magazine put it, [Brown] ‘is the voice of the community that demands justice, the voice that demands that people step up and take responsibility for their actions and do the right thing.’ (This is a very different community from the one the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world talk about, and doubtless Ebony is correct to identify it as speaking with the authentic communal voice.)”
No wonder many Americans–including me–eat this sort of thing up. As schools, politicians, and the liberal press increasingly abdicate their moral authority, we turn to TV judges to get what we crave: the nerve to be judgmental.