MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Do TV Judges Have Any Real Legal Authority?

A longtime staple of daytime TV, at some point or another everyone who’s ever watched Judge Judy has wondered: does she, or any other TV judge, really have any actual legal authority?

Judith Sheindlin actually used to be a real, live judge back in the day. Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, appointed Mrs. Sheindlin to a family court post in 1982 before making her the supervising family court judge for Manhattan in 1986. But while TV court shows don’t take place in real courtrooms or feature real trials, usually they are real cases. Producers will often reach out to parties who have pending small claims court cases & instead offer those folks the chance to appear on TV. So, what you end up seeing TV court shows is actually just a process called arbitration pretending to be small claims court.

A legal way of resolving disputes outside of court, arbitration sees parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator who hears the case, examines all the evidence, and then makes a decision on the matter. The authority Judge Judy & other TV judges have over the disputing parties is actually granted by a contract signed by all those involved, which is specific to their case. Before appearing on the show, all parties involved will sign a contract that, among other things, makes the arbitrator’s decision final & binding.

TV judges ultimately make their decision on the case either for the plaintiff, in which case the producers usually award them a judgment fee, or for the defendant, whereby the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. That system tends to tip its favor more toward defendants, which incentivizes them to have their case heard on TV instead of court. If their case is weak, appearing on the show absolves them of financial liability. But if their case is strong, defendants stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory. But if one side or the other doesn’t like the arbitrator’s decision, the only real way to appeal the decision successfully would be if their complaint addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract.

So, if you’ve got some issue you’ve been thinking about taking to small claims court in the near future, maybe give Judge Judy’s folks a call!

And if you’ve got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved, send me an email:  [email protected].

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