A Judge's View: Real court not as entertaining as on TV — and isn’t supposed to be

From the column: "My kids find it hilarious that a stand-up comedian who announced the wrong person as winner of the Miss Universe pageant a few years back apparently is gunning for my job."

3338473+dale harris.jpg
Dale Harris

I am seeing commercials for a new television show: “Judge Steve Harvey.” I’ll admit, it got a reaction from me. My kids find it hilarious that a stand-up comedian who announced the wrong person as winner of the Miss Universe pageant a few years back apparently is gunning for my job.

Mind you, there is already plenty of competition. Search the internet for “reality-based courtroom television shows” and you will end up with a very long list. The shows range from traditional entries like “The People’s Court” and “Judge Judy” to a little more, um, obscure offerings like “Gary Busey: Pet Judge.” There were 50 such programs listed on a “Ranker” web page, many of which I had never heard of.

Most of these programs are not court proceedings at all, although they might start out that way. The shows look for interesting court filings in conciliation court and offer the participants some form of compensation to agree to resolve the case on the show as a form of binding arbitration. At that point, the dispute is outside the actual court process, even if they try to pretend otherwise. And that is my primary concern with these shows.

People watch these programs, and I mean a lot of people. Judy Sheindlin of “Judge Judy” fame has a reported annual income of $47 million, and the show averaged an estimated 7.8 million viewers in its final season.

The shows always use terms like “court” or “judge,” the person presiding often wears a robe, and the set is designed to look like a courtroom. But the traditional rules of evidence don’t always apply, there are seldom attorneys involved, and the judge might or might not have any legal training at all, let alone be qualified as a judge. (Judge Judy, for her part, is a former New York family court judge.) These shows are designed to be entertainment, and the producers do what they can to spice up the claims. If a real courtroom is Greco-Roman wrestling, these reality shows are the WWE.


More importantly, bad behavior by the litigants is often tolerated, if not encouraged. People on the shows interrupt each other, roll their eyes, and throw sarcasm back and forth. This can create real problems when a fan of these shows has to go to a real courtroom, because that sort of conduct is not tolerated. And if I ever treated litigants the way Judge Judy treats the people appearing in front of her, I am quite certain there would be a letter of reprimand from the Chief Justice waiting in my mailbox afterward.

The proceedings in my courtroom are probably nowhere near as entertaining as what people tune in to “Judge Judy” to see, and my salary is a far cry from $47 million.

But the cases I see every day are real people with real problems, and I take my job of presiding over their disputes very seriously.

We’ll see if Steve Harvey can do that.

Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District.

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