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Daytime Courtroom Television: What Gives?
September 10, 2007 8:54 AM   Subscribe

"Real" court case TV shows: what's in it for the parties involved, and the legal system in general?

Sorry in advance for the long post:

OK, I am aware that the parties on US daytime court shows (e.g., Judge Joe Brown, People's Court) are offered reimbursement of their court costs (and possibly expenses?) to have their case heard on these shows. I am also aware that these hearings bear little resemblance to real courtroom proceedings (what with the poorly-maintained order and adherence to procedure, moralizing asides and shoddy legal reasoning by the judges, etc.). But the other day I saw an episode that got me thinking.

In one case, the plaintiff disclosed that his son was in prison for possession of child pornography. The defendant disclosed that he himself had been in prison for molesting his own daughter. Neither disclosure had any relevance to the case (but of course were great for sensationalist television); in fact, the judge became very irate when the defendant dragged his feet about answering her question about why he was in prison. Which raises two questions for me:

1) Besides the covering of court costs, why would anyone, especially people who stand to suffer great embarassment and possibly a bad reputation, agree to broadcast their case on national television? Many of the parties in these cases do not appear to be too indigent to pay their own court costs; do they really want their "15 minutes" that badly, or is it safe to assume that someone who, say, molests their own daughter is just that inept at weighing the costs versus the benefits of going on TV?

2) More broadly, why does the legal system tolerate the portrayal of such obvious perversions of courtroom justice as legitimate? I can't imagine that any competent legal counsel in a real case would allow (without objection) a judge to moralize about a defendant's actions / character, extract irrelevant information (that would seem to be covered by the 5th amendment in many cases), or ignore principles like burden of proof / preponderance of evidence, and courtroom decorum / order. For that matter, I can't imagine any competent judge would behave like Judge Judy et al, without realizing that they are just handing the defense ammunition for an appeal. I realize that these are small claims cases that do not involve representation by attorneys, but why are these shows not illegal on the grounds that they don't constitute fair, competent legal proceedings? At the very least, why don't we hear more of an outcry from the legal community? Don't lawyers and judges get sick of having to explain to courtroom parties that "those things only happen on television?"
posted by Rykey to Law & Government (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's just 'small claims,' and the way I saw it explained, there's a big pool of money that the shows set aside. If you're found 'guilty,' the show pays the damages. But the defendant gets the rest of the money. (I think the pool is maybe $5,000.) And I think the money is more than the limit of small claims court, so it's basically win-win. Aside from, you know, embarrassing yourself in front of the whole country.

why are these shows not illegal on the grounds that they don't constitute fair, competent legal proceedings

The legal system is overwhelmed. These are sort of like arbitration proceedings, which the courts seem to love since it gets stuff out of their hair. And now the real courts have time to deal with 'real' proceedings, as opposed to the inane stuff you see on TV. And both parties have to agree to it.

Don't lawyers and judges get sick of having to explain to courtroom parties that "those things only happen on television?"

Surely, just like the police get sick of saying that about all the bad police dramas. But I also think any competent legal counsel would explain that stuff up front. (Actually, just having competent legal counsel would make all the difference...) Also, even if lawyers and judges were really fed up, I don't think there's much they can do. They can't order a TV show off the air for being inaccurate.

It's probably out of line, but I think IQ levels could be brought into this argument, too...
posted by fogster at 9:15 AM on September 10, 2007


More broadly, why does the legal system tolerate the portrayal of such obvious perversions of courtroom justice as legitimate?

I don't have an insider's view on this, but my impression of the way "People's Court" etc work is that the parties agree to settle their actual legal claims in advance and sign a contract that they'll do whatever Judge Judy tells them to do, and in return they're paid $500 each or whatever.

The upshot is that the TV daytime court dramas are not actually real courtrooms, and so, given the first amendment, the judicial system can't really constrain what goes on in the shows. Does that answer your question at all, or did you already know all this and you're asking something else?
posted by rkent at 9:19 AM on September 10, 2007


The placement of my <small> comment was poorly-planned... I meant that it could explain why people agree to go on the show. I once saw someone capable of intelligent discussion on the show. The judge was openly commenting on how good at this she was and, of course, found in her favor. I really think they try to screen those with decent debate skills out, to keep the show more amusing.
posted by fogster at 9:19 AM on September 10, 2007


why does the legal system tolerate the portrayal of such obvious perversions of courtroom justice as legitimate?

d00d, we have a first amendment in this country, freedom of speech and all. why does the legal system tolerate law and order? why does journalism tolerate fox news? because there isn't a single damn thing they can do about it, that's why.
posted by bruce at 9:29 AM on September 10, 2007


Hey, I saw that episode, too!

There are two (practical) reasons people chose court shows over the real thing: The TV version is faster, and they're more likely to get their money.

In many parts of the country, the small claims courts over overloaded (just like the rest of the court system), so it can take many months for a filed case to actually reach a courtroom. The TV shows can cherry-pick interesting cases and offer the parties involved a "trial" sooner than a real court would.

In addition to that, some of the court shows actually pay the judgement themselves. A lot of people who lose real court cases don't (or can't) pay right away, so a winning plaintiff has to accept a payment plan or send the case to a collections agency. If The People's Court (or whatever) is offering instant payment, that's a plus for both sides -- the winner doesn't have to wait for the money, and the loser doesn't actually have to pay it. (In fact, I'm convinced some people who know they're going to lose appear on those shows just to get out of paying the settlement themselves.)

Let's face it: A lot reality TV exploit the lower and middle classes. Court shows zero in on people who need their legal problems resolved extra-quickly. It might be called "small claims," but $2000 is a big deal for a lot of people. If they need that money now, some people are going to risk their dignity get it now.

Then, of course, there's the impractical reasons, like some people just want to be on TV, and most people think they're much smarter than they are. Those morons you saw may actually have thought they could go on TV without admitting their perversions.

As for the the "competent judge" part, all I'm going to say is: There's a reason they don't let people like Judge Judy oversee murder trials. The crazy judges get stuck in the small courtrooms.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 9:36 AM on September 10, 2007


Thing that I found interesting is that they actually go through the details of all of upcoming court dockets to see what possible future court cases might be interesting to them, and then they pursue the plaintiffs.

When a popular LA restaurant stiffed me for 2 singing performances, I decided to fight it and go to small claims for the first time in my life. Next thing I knew Judge Joe Brown's people were calling & writing me, trying to get me to fight it on tv. I didn't want to, but they tried hard to be convincing. That they were so on top of my case so quickly that it was really weird to me & made me uncomfortable. It almost felt like my privacy was invaded in a way.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:04 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


This explains the money bit of it pretty good:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge_Judy#Structure
posted by mrbill at 10:10 AM on September 10, 2007


I have heard from a reputable source (former writer on one of these shows) that the controversies are actually nothing of the sort. The writers make up many of the cases and then go find people willing to be on TV for $50. They don't get real actors because it wouldn't be believable- they actually go find the most messed up assholes they can and teach them the story they have to act out. You'll notice that the details will change and the judge doesn't call them on it- that's because the actors forgot the story.

Based on what has been said above, this is probably not true for all of the shows, or maybe even most. But is is true for at least one.
posted by ohio at 10:14 AM on September 10, 2007


Based on what has been said above, this is probably not true for all of the shows, or maybe even most. But is is true for at least one.

True or not, that seems like way more work than finding real people.
posted by starman at 10:21 AM on September 10, 2007


My understanding of The People's Court was that they got paid.

The show had a pot of money for each case. If you won as a plaintiff, you got your money. Then both sides split the remainder. Again, just AFAIK.

So you would appear and look like a degenerate moron because they paid you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:27 AM on September 10, 2007


I always wondered how much they paid those transsexual clown prostitutes on Night Court.
posted by DefendBrooklyn at 10:36 AM on September 10, 2007


d00d, we have a first amendment in this country, freedom of speech and all. why does the legal system tolerate law and order? why does journalism tolerate fox news? because there isn't a single damn thing they can do about it, that's why.

IANAL, but as far as I know, the First Amendment doesn't cover obviously fraudulent statements (Iraq war justifications notwithstanding, hee hee). Which is what these shows would be engaged in if they were claiming to be legitimate, real court cases (i.e., I couldn't legally order someone to pay damages to someone else by claiming to be Chief Justice of Rykeyland), am I right?

Which must mean that somewhere in the fine print of the show's credits (or somewhere else) the show makes some disclaimer to the effect of, this shit ain't real. Anyone know?
posted by Rykey at 11:02 AM on September 10, 2007


As I understand it, the "court" is actually binding arbitration. The parties agree to be bound by the decision of the "judge."
posted by Sheppagus at 12:26 PM on September 10, 2007


My cousin went to shoot a People's Court episode a couple weeks ago. He went because he's an idiot and thinks that he will actually look cool on the show, but, in reality, it will be an absolute trainwreck. Plus they paid for him and his "finacee" to go out to New York for the shoot.
posted by miss meg at 8:28 PM on September 10, 2007


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