Order, order. Court is in session, Judge Judith Sheindlin presiding, and while you are here you will follow her rules.
Don’t throw paper on the floor. Hang on to your gum wrapper until you get to a bin. Don’t befoul your community. Try not to scratch other people’s cars and, if you do, leave your details on the windscreen. Don’t tell lies. Confront your problems and try to solve them.
“Those are the right things to do,” concludes Judge Judy. And, she believes, most of us know it. It is our innate love of order – and seeing consequences for those who defy it – that has driven the astonishing success of her courtroom TV show. Where other daytime personalities have come and gone, Judge Judy has reigned supreme for 25 years. One in three Americans watch her programme every year, with the most recent season averaging 9 million daily viewers.
Sheindlin, 78, is not just a household name but an authority figure. In 2013 a Reader’s Digest survey found that she was considered more trustworthy than any sitting US supreme court justice. The Drag Race host RuPaul Charles has described her courtroom as a “sanctuary for rational critical thinking”. Barack Obama, the rapper Nicki Minaj and the comedians Larry David, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer are also fans.
“I wish Judge Judy was in charge” (of my life, the courts, my country) is a recurring refrain on social media. But Sheindlin is hanging up her gavel. Judge Judy’s final episode will air this year.
“I always said, if you’re smart, you’re supposed to go out of any profession when you’re on top,” Sheindlin says by phone. “If you decide to stay too long at the party, your makeup begins to fade.”
It is true that Judge Judy seems increasingly at odds with the times. Her black-and-white worldview and her refusal to spare others’ feelings doesn’t sit easily with a society that has become more sensitive to unkindness.
Sheindlin has always been brutally blunt – some may say cruel – in her unrelenting drive for personal responsibility. But what sets her apart today is her lack of apology for it. “Everybody knows the message,” she says, with an implied shrug. “Do the right thing”.
Show business was an unexpected career change for Sheindlin, coming after 25 years as a litigator and a judge in New York’s family court. Growing up in Brooklyn, she settled on the law “by a process of elimination” before she was even 10, she says. “I was a great bullshitter … and I could argue my way out of any situation.” Her father, Murray, a dentist, told her she should be a senator. “I figured out you’ve really got to be a lawyer first.”
But it was not purely pragmatism. “I just felt as if it was my natural place.” Both Murray and her mother, Ethel, an office manager, were “very moral people”, while her grandfather was deeply religious. She remembers him explaining to her, on Yom Kippur, that he fasted and took the stairs to his apartment as atonement for his sins. “It translated to an eight-year-old’s mind as, if I do everything right all year, I can eat and take the elevator on Yom Kippur!”
Sheindlin shares it as “a cute story”, but it is also telling of a worldview in which the right thing is always unambiguous and attainable. In Sheindlin’s book, good and bad, moral and immoral, order and disorder are a straightforward calculation. If you can’t make it add up, well – that’s on you. Factors such as systemic injustice, for example, don’t apply.
Her time at the family court “toughened” her, Sheindlin says. She saw tens of thousands of cases of child neglect and abuse that underscored her absolutist views on personal responsibility. Many parents brought before her were young and unemployed, she says, with more children than they could take care of, financially or emotionally.
“Are my feelings necessarily PC and kumbaya? No. They are realistic.” Being blind to the reality for the sake of political correctness is not only ignorant, Sheindlin says, but “hurtful – mostly to children”.
Her voice lowers to a furious undertone. “How do you put together in your brain a mother punishing a child by putting out a cigarette on his arm? A parent punishing a child for wetting their pants by making them sit in scalding water? Howdoyoudothat!
“Do you say: ‘Well, I’m going to look at the childhood of the parent – maybe that’s all the parent knew?’ Not in my world. In my world, if that’s the way you know how to parent, you shouldn’t have any more children.”
And in her court, she would say so – not as an order, Sheindlin clarifies. “I mean, I can’t do that.” (Though you get the feeling that if she could, she would.) But she would tell deadbeat dads: “Find something to do with that organ other than make babies.”
In her outspokenness, Sheindlin says, she was unique even among judges. “Nobody else says that – it’s not PC! ‘How dare you say that?’ Well, I dare say that because a) I’m supporting them all, and so is everybody else who pays taxes and b) the reason the case is before me is because the children were neglected, or abused – or worse.”
She was raising a family of her own at the time, having had two children in her first marriage, to the lawyer Ronald Levy. They divorced in 1976 after 12 years of marriage. The following year she married Jerry Sheindlin, another lawyer, with three children of his own. They divorced in 1990, but remarried a year later; today they live in Florida with their three shih tzu dogs.
It meant, after long days at court, taking care of meals, “appointments, clothes, socks – and not everybody is as neat as you would want them!” splutters Sheindlin with fond exasperation. (Asked if his mother treated her family the same way she did her court, her son Adam once joked: “There are similarities.”)
In 1986 Sheindlin was appointed supervising judge in Manhattan, going on to rule on more than 20,000 cases. She drew immense satisfaction from those where she felt she had intervened to stop a family on a downward spiral. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes, but my motivating factor was always to try to do the right thing.”
At the same time, Sheindlin gained a reputation for intolerance, sarcasm and even bullying among complainants and lawyers alike. In 1993 a Los Angeles Times profile described her as having a comedian’s timing and an “impatience that borders on rage”.
As Sheindlin puts it now, she was “not stifled” in her courtroom. “Some people didn’t like my style – I told them to bug off.” Was she ever too hard on those who appeared before her? She considers the question. “Probably. Probably it all balances out, because most of them will have been treated too softly.” Few people ever emerge from family court pleased with the outcome, she points out. But it is also hard to avoid an element of grandstanding, of personal affront at lapsed responsibility.
In a 60 Minutes interview in 1993 (embraced by Sheindlin and her team as Judge Judy lore), the host Morley Safer called her out for “trying to scare the hell” out of a 13-year-old boy in her court. “I try,” agreed Sheindlin.
That segment drew the attention of the makers of the reality TV show The People’s Court, who approached Sheindlin about a show of her own. With her term at the family court nearly up, when opportunity knocked, “I pulled the door open,” she declares.
And so in September 1996, just shy of her 54th birthday, Sheindlin began a new chapter in show business, without an agent or any previous experience. (Her husband, a former New York supreme court justice, went on to appear on The People’s Court from 1999 to 2001 – though, she says, “he was always a support for me”.)
Sheindlin quickly made herself indispensable to CBS. Her approach to remuneration is famous: every three years, she went to a steakhouse with the network president and handed him an envelope with her desired figure inside. When a newcomer once tried to give her an envelope of his own, Sheindlin told him: “This isn’t a negotiation.”
That envelope was last reported to say $47m (£33m), on top of the $200m CBS paid her in 2017 for rights to the show’s library. As a later-in-life celebrity, Sheindlin says, she was never at risk of being swept away. “I still remember the lean years.”
But the fact that Sheindlin is one of the highest-paid personalities in television adds bite to criticisms of her show as “poverty porn”. Those who appear on Judge Judy apply to do so and are paid a fee. But critics, such as the lawyer Sarah Jaffe, writing in Slate last year, have said its success lies in watching “vulnerable people be subjected to humiliation”.
“This is sport for me,” shouts Sheindlin at a complainant in her courtroom, in one of the many YouTube compilations of her “best savage moments”.
Sheindlin rejects the idea that she is ever “gratuitously nasty or mean, without trying to make a point”. But, she adds, “for those idiot critics in the legal field who say ‘she gives judges a bad reputation’ … It’s TV, folks. You want to sit in a regular courtroom, go to a courtroom.”
It certainly seems true that Sheindlin’s pop-cultural status distracts liberals from politics they might otherwise find unpalatable. For instance, she applauds as “courageous” Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms on the grounds that “he disincentivised young girls from having children just because it was like getting a new pair of sneakers”, when recent analysis suggests that, in fact, the policy’s success was in reducing the number of beneficiaries – not poverty itself.
But criticism of Judge Judy has eased in recent years, Sheindlin observes – perhaps because of the very social sensitivities she decries. “The attacks would be brutal when I was younger – now, well, it’s not PC to say nasty things about old people.” She chuckles. “But the truth is, and I say this without ego, you cannot belie success.”
Indeed, the figures are inarguable: Judge Judy has been the No 1 daytime programme since 1998, syndicated in more than 100 territories. Sheindlin has no doubt as to the reason for its popularity: “In a society where there are no rules, and boundaries are designed to be broken without consequence, people flail.” We are witnessing that in action now, Sheindlin maintains – from the rise of “ridiculous” lawsuits, such as for the right to emotional support animals, to chaos in global politics.
Does she wish she could tackle that in an official capacity – as a supreme court justice, say? Sheindlin’s response is immediate: “Oh, no.
She has been asked before, she says, but “I am too accustomed to being a monarch in my courtroom. The supreme court rules by committee, and I would be unhappy to write a lengthy, scholarly, dissenting opinion. Listen …” Sheindlin snickers. “Either you’re a team player, you play lacrosse or football – or you play golf.” Instead, she is starting anew in streaming, with a forthcoming project for Amazon Studios’ new IMDb TV. Despite the name – Judy Justice – it’s not expected to be another courtroom show.
Many people seek out Judge Judy’s verdict directly. “I can’t tell you how much mail I receive from the UK complaining about your judges, saying they’re soft,” says Sheindlin. Softer than US judges? “I don’t know,” she says, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “But softer than I am.”