In ‘Oh, Really?’ the Biederman Blog’s editors — voracious consumers of all matters pop culture — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular productions, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.
Pop quiz: Who is America’s highest-paid television star? Kim Kardashian? Nope. John Stewart? No. Tina Fey? Negative. Try this: TV Guide says it is Judith Sheindlin, aka “Judge Judy,” who reigns atop this nation’s star list, pulling down a whopping $47 million annually.
It’s unsurprising, actually, that the Judge Judy phenomenon has seeped so deep into pop culture. By delivering her brand of “drive-thru” justice and entertainment, replete with common sense conduct and no-nonsense rebukes from the bench for an endless array of reality TV-style twits, Sheindlin has become one of America’s most trusted jurists.
But the cruelest reality of the broadcast courts — where Judge Joe Brown hauled down a reported $20 million annually and Judge Marilyn Milian presides over one of TV’s longest-running and highly profitable franchise series — is how much they differ from the pauperized, actual state of the legal system. While Judge Judy exemplifies the exception where a law degree is worth millions, her show and the other TV courts falsely portray an American legal system that’s fiscally healthy and sufficiently rewarding to give all plaintiffs, especially those with relatively minor matters, an abundance of time and attention.
In fact, taxpayers, policy- and law-makers have given such a haircut to courts at all levels that even the staunchest advocates within the system fear for the judicial system’s capacity to administer justice fairly for all.
California’s state court system, the largest in the world and currently serving some 38 million people, has seen its budget bushwhacked by $1 billion in the past five years, resulting in court closures and layoffs; General Fund support of the court system has been slashed 65 percent.
In Los Angeles, David Wesley, a distinguished Southwestern Law School alum and presiding judge of the LA Superior Courts, the nation’s largest trial court system, has, due to draconian budget cuts, overseen a plan to put in place sweeping restrictions on or elimination of services, all of which mean greater delays and inconvenience to anyone doing legal business in town — from fighting a traffic ticket all the way up to litigating that big-dollar Entertainment Law case.
Meantime, to put in perspective Judge Judy’s paycheck, consider that if you aggregated the salary of every sitting member of the highest state courts across the country, the combined earnings of these 340-plus judges would only slightly exceed what Sheindlin receives. She earns more than 200 times what U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts receives (his $200k-plus pay looks paltry in comparison).
And without denigrating the “rulings” that televised jurists dispense, for practitioners’ sake, let’s be clear: the cases they handle are relatively small, participants are tightly screened and the process isn’t a trial but rather an arbitration, so while the parties may display dramatic aggravation on the air, they’ve already agreed there will be a resolution that they can live with.
Of course this all doesn’t diminish a whit the obsession that sizable audiences show for broadcasts of this ilk, which even spawn their own academic study, and here’s a reminder why: