Do you love Judge Judy?  Can’t stand to miss a moment of Judge Joe Brown?  What is it about “reality” court TV shows that keeps viewers hooked?  It seems the greatest attraction for many is watching others “get what’s coming to them.” There’s nothing like watching some arrogant know-it-all get a smack down and a trip behind the woodshed from Judge Judy. One never needs to wonder about her opinions – and she has plenty of them.

While these shows provide great entertainment for many, the problem is that they give a distorted view of how the court system actually works. This can become problematic when those who only know a courtroom from what they’ve seen on a 42” screen are faced with the real thing for the first time.

Probably the greatest distortion on these shows is the way judges are portrayed. Simply put, if a judge were as rude, condescending, argumentative and insulting as Judge Judy is on her show, she/he would probably be unemployed in short order. Judges must follow a set of rules called the Judicial Canon of Ethics. Among them, a judge must endeavor to promote public confidence [CJE 2A], maintain order and decorum in the court [CJE 3B(3)], and be patient, be dignified and give courteous treatment to all parties, counsel, and court personnel [CJE 3B(4)]. These noble statutes are not just idle words, as one Contra Costa County judge found out in 2003 when he became the first judge in the state to be tossed from the bench by the state Commission on Judicial Performance solely for his courtroom demeanor.

Of additional concern are the lessons learned about what constitutes appropriate behaviors for litigants. For example, parties in a real small claims court should provide clear testimony and submit any physical evidence that may be relevant and supportive of their position. I can think of no better way to ruin a presentation than to argue with the judge, interrupt the other party during their presentation, or, better yet, spend your presentation time telling the judge what a miserable person the other guy is. This last point is particularly important. People forget that one of the great things about our country is that even miserable people are entitled to legal rights – and really kind people can be in the wrong, legally speaking.  

Finally, court TV shows sacrifice the judicial process itself in the interest of entertainment. There are no rules of evidence, no apparent avenues for appeal, and, clearly, no legal guidelines that television judges have to follow.

If one accepts that these shows are intended to provide entertainment – mental bubblegum – and nothing more – then no harm is done.

However, due to the nature of the subject matter there is no avoiding a certain educational component. The problem is, the “education” in this case is counterproductive because it is misleading; and having bad information is worse than having no information. So … enjoy that occasional “slam down” on TV. But don’t ever try it in a real courtroom or you might find yourself with some new jewelry – a nice, shiny new pair of silver bracelets!

Stephen Gizzi is the President of the Solano County Bar Association and serves as a Judge pro tem with the Solano County Superior Court.