Strict Nielsenism

Why Judge Wapner is bad for America.

Judge Joseph Wapner is not a modest man. Even in the black-robe league of judges past and present, where modesty is always in short supply, the paucity of his humility is remarkable. I suppose that he can point to his daytime television audience, 20 million strong, as warrant for his absolute certainty that he is worth all the self-acclaim detailed in his recent auto-vanity!

I have watched Judge Wapner’s television show only once or twice but have been irritated far more frequently at the amount of legal disinformation that television viewers claim to have acquired from regular watching of “People’s Court.” It is always possible, I tell myself, that the television viewers misinterpret what Judge Wapner says (just as lawyers sometimes misinterpret what real-life judges say.) After all, the man had been a real judge before leaving for the fame and fortune of the television courtroom.

A View From the Bench by Joseph Wapner

A View From the Bench by Judge Joseph A. Wapner

On reading the book, I realize that I have been too hard on Wapner’s television audience. He does indeed have a certitude about his passions and prejudices that allows him to proclaim some very dubious rules of law when he pronounces on the cases before him, after the commercial break.

“I was not always a judge,” our author tells us, perhaps to relieve us of any suspicion that he sprang fully robed from the womb of Athena. He recounts his early childhood in a middle-class neighborhood. He even acknowledges graduation from law school. But nowhere in his discussion of his formative years is there the slightest clue about the origin of some of the unjudgely notions that Judge Wapner regularly dispenses.

Judge Wapner’s idiosyncratic view of criminal law is illustrated by a war tale he recounts from his real-life days in the California court system. A drifter is tried for stealing a car. Judge Wapner acclaims the jury’s “not guilty” verdict. He summons the wrongfully accused to the bench and decrees: “The jury has found you not guilty. I have no further legal jurisdiction over you. This is a Friday, but I order you to stay in jail until Monday, and then I’ll see about sending you back home with your head held high.” This anecdote of unlawful imprisonment is used to prove Judge Wapner’s generosity, because on Monday he gives the drifter some old clothing.

Judge Wapner’s categories of good and evil are firm and unshakable—indeed, so unshakable that mere facts or law are often beside the point. Woe betide a defendant accused of rape in Judge Wapner’s court. Forget about the presumption of innocence, the obligation of the state to prove its case, or any of the other due process folderol. “It was a foolish lawyer who argued a rape case for the defense in my court and expected to prevail,” he notes proudly.

The book is chock full of other examples of reversible error, but Judge Wapner presses on. His only complaint is that Governor Jerry Brown, angered at some disagreement, refused to promote him to Appellate Judge. I have always thought Jerry Brown had some redeeming qualities.

“People’s Court” ought to have a disclaimer running at the bottom of the screen telling the viewers that while the characters and the disputes may be real, the law proclaimed by former Judge Wapner frequently is not.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION