Over the last 20 years, Judge Judy’s Judith Sheindlin has presided over her televised court, dispensing justice, cracking wise, lecturing litigants about the importance of personal responsibility, and making viewers feel better about their lives by comparison. She also pioneered a new genre of court TV, with smart-aleck judges frequently lecturing or berating the people in front of them.
In a new article on Priceonomics, though, a former producer on an unnamed judge show explains the extent to which Judge Judy and shows like it are pure showbiz. Judy hasn’t been a judge in two decades, and the people being shushed by the bailiff when court is called to order are paid extras.
Her job, Houston says, is to exploit stereotypes. She’s looking for black women suing each other over a hair weave. Booking a mother-daughter pornstar team was a triumph. Scorned women are great. Before the show, producers pump the litigants up like they are boxers in the ring, so they’ll be ready to say horrible stuff about each other.
“It’s what the audience wants,” Houston says. “… it’s weird, it’s so weird.”
To Sheindlin’s credit, Houston says that Judge Judy aims to be “above brand.” (Houston did not work on Judge Judy, but court TV is a small world.) Judy’s producers want drama and some crazy, but not stereotypes or people who will fight all episode. The Judge Judyproducers prep litigants by helping them articulate their case.
For all Judy’s tough talk about consequences and responsibility, her show and shows like it actually make it possible for people to avoid the consequences of their actions. If the defendant loses, the show will cover the cost of their settlement. The plaintiff, meanwhile, gets their cash quickly, and everyone gets an appearance fee and a trip to L.A..
The other 40% of the time, Houston says, people do it for the money. Plaintiffs who know they will win want the quick settlement rather than a long court case. Defendants who think they’ll lose want the show to pay the damages they owe. And in either case, the show pays each person an appearance fee of around $150 to $500 and pays for their flight, hotel and meals.
This aspect of court TV—that when Judy Sheindlin and other judges order defendants to pay up, it’s the producers who actually pay—is an open secret. The media has reported it, citing litigants who appeared on Judge Judy. Sheindlin herself has confirmed it in interviews, and we confirmed it with both Sharon Houston and Sheindlin’s publicist.
In cases where a defendant is ordered to return a piece of property, like a car, for example, that almost never happens. The show will just pay out the defendant for the value of the item.
When a court TV judge orders a defendant to return a car or some other piece of property, though, it rarely happens.
“In my experience,” Houston says, “whenever a judge says exchange property, we can’t enforce that. We just pay the judgement.” In some cases, the staff tells the defendants to bring the property to court so they can make the exchange. In most cases, Houston says, producers pay the cost of the property and the defendant keeps the item in question. No accountability there.
As ugly as all this is, it pales in comparison to the not-super-surprising revelation that the litigants often come from the ranks of the poorest Americans. That means that producers often have to do things like paint people’s rotten and discolored teeth to get them ready to go on TV.
Painting people’s teeth is part of a process that the producers refer to as putting people “through the carwash.” They take the litigants to the hairdresser, make sure they shower, give them fake teeth, and dress them in clothes that look nice but not too nice.
“If you saw what America actually looks like, you’d be horrified,” Houston says. “You wouldn’t turn on the TV.”
The most common criticisms of Judge Judy—from both viewers and law scholars—condemn the way she berates and moralizes the poor and unfortunate.
And there is something disconcerting about a well off judge mocking poor defendants for being unprepared or struggling to present their case. “These people have been in a cycle of poverty,” Houston tells us. “It’s just something we don’t understand.”
In short, Judge Judy is an ex-judge in a fake court, verbally abusing poor people for ratings before handing down a consequence-free judgement that is actually folded into the production costs. Think about that next time you’re channel surfing in the afternoon.