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Judge Judy Presides Over Court -- and Ratings

"God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason!" Sheindlin bellows at the man and his wife, who stand accused of defaulting on a loan. "Time to use the ears. When you lie as long as he has, it just gets to be a habit, doesn't it? Don't look at your wife. She's not going to help you. Look at me!"

- Judge Judy Sheindlin

You're paying your debts." She leans over to longtime bailiff Petri Hawkins-Byrd. "Get rid of them," she whispers. "I'm through with them.

Judy Shiendlin Profile

Scott Bowles - USA Today

LOS ANGELES — The defendant has stepped in it now.

"I never lie!" he says, raising his voice and a finger Judith Sheindlin's way.

The courtroom goes quiet as spectators realize the man is done for. Sheindlin —Judge Judy to anyone who owns a television set — stiffens in her seat, not sure what she just heard. "Excuse me?" she asks, raising an eyebrow, giving that look like you just interrupted her putt.

"I said I never ..."

"God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason!" Sheindlin bellows at the man and his wife, who stand accused of defaulting on a loan. "Time to use the ears. When you lie as long as he has, it just gets to be a habit, doesn't it? Don't look at your wife. She's not going to help you. Look at me!"

Sheindlin brings the gavel down. "Judgment for plaintiff. You're paying your debts." She leans over to longtime bailiff Petri Hawkins-Byrd. "Get rid of them," she whispers. "I'm through with them."

Sheindlin is up and out the door. The defendant, whose name is contractually kept undisclosed until the show airs, lets fly a stream of obscenities, some in English, some Spanish. All come after Sheindlin is out of earshot.

Back in her office, she takes off the robe, pulls back a few strands of hair and drops behind her desk. "Can you believe that guy?" she asks. "How can you be that stupid? Did he forget he had me today?"

Not likely. Since she premiered on television in 1996, Sheindlin has become more than the queen of courtroom TV. She's hotter than ever, topping even Oprah Winfrey as television's No. 1 daytime host.
Judy averaged 6.6 million viewers a day in the past TV season, up 7%, vs. Oprah's 6.4 million, down 1%. Judy has been the top-rated daytime show 24 out of the past 29 weeks and has beaten Oprah 13 of the past 15.

Now Sheindlin, who once mused how nice it would be to last a decade in television, enters her 15th year in syndication with a $45-million-a-year contract and no less contempt for scammers, swindlers and sinners against the English language.

"It's pronounced library," she says of one of her pet peeves. "Not libary. If I can learn that in elementary school, why can't (others)?"

But spend a couple of days in her courtroom, and it's clear that Sheindlin isn't all fang and claw. She may work 52 days a year as America's favorite judge, jury and hector, but the 67-year-old can be every part grandmother and semi-retiree.

She and her husband, Jerry Sheindlin (who served two years as judge over The People's Court), summer in Connecticut and winter in Florida. They're usually in bed by 10 p.m. to watch Sheindlin's one TV addiction, Law & Order: Criminal Intent (the episodes with Vincent D'Onofrio, not that Jeff Goldblum fellow).

She cannot control herself with her 11grandchildren, whom she concedes she spoils rotten. When they call, she stops all business. (It can be jarring to see the 5-foot-2 spark plug stop in mid-rant to bob her head to the children's ringtone, Bette Midler's syrupy hit Friends.)

Sheindlin's five children and their families routinely fly in Grandma's private jet, which ferries them to the small courtroom set, cloaked in Warehouse 5 at Los Angeles news station KTLA.

"Look, you do this long enough and you learn what's really important in your life," Sheindlin says. "That's family. I mean, when it comes down to it, it's just TV."

Easy for her to say.

Her contract renewal through 2013 (and $20 million raise over 2007's salary) makes her Forbes' 72nd-richest celebrity in Hollywood. All for a 22-minute show, unscripted, as rigidly structured as a game show.

Studio executives and scholars, though, say Sheindlin has tapped into something more layered. "Judge Judy is America's Jewish mother," says B.J. Gallagher, author of Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Other Women.

'Epitome of tough love'

"She is the epitome of tough love," Gallagher says. "But she knows love isn't just about tenderness; sometimes love is best expressed by a swift kick in the tush. She holds people to account for their bad behavior. Judge Judy understands that some people change when they see the light, but most people change only when they feel the heat."

Maybe that's why the show's creators originally planned to call it Hot Bench, a title that sends shivers through John Nogawski, president of CBS Television Distribution, which syndicates the show. "Oh, God, if we had called it that, it would have been off the air in two years," he says.

"I don't think people realize what a remarkable thing she's done," Nogawski says. "I've seen older women have comebacks, like Betty White. But when have you seen a television star get big past the age of 50, with no experience? It's unheard of."

Indeed, Judge Judy owes much of its longevity to Sheindlin turning the genre on its ear. You can't escape courtroom shows these days: divorce court, people's court, animal court, small claims court with Texas-style justice.

What separates Judy is that while those shows survive on lively plaintiffs and oddball cases, fans tune in to watch Sheindlin burn. Litigants, facts, cases — all serve as accelerants.

Syndication analyst Bill Carroll says Judy prevails thanks to key late-afternoon time slots — where she often competes with Oprah — and because "she has the most distinctive personality" among legions of TV judges. "She doesn't take any guff."

Her on-air attitude could be dismissed as television bluster if it weren't Sheindlin's MO for all her judicial career. Appointed to the bench as a judge in the Family Court in 1982 by New York's mayor, Edward Koch, Sheindlin made a name for herself as a stern-talking, quick-ruling judge who adjudicated more than 20,000 cases during her time in the New York court system.

She saw grim things. Parents who burned cigarettes on children to potty-train them. Deadbeat dads. Pregnant, abused, dope-addled teens.

"There isn't much she hasn't experienced," says executive producer Timothy Regler. "People think she's very tough, and she is. But it isn't out of any meanness. She has a profound respect for the family and the law."

Sure enough, ask Sheindlin about her role as a TV judge, and she loses the snarl quickly.

"I know this sounds clichéd, but I think people want to learn something when they watch TV," she says. "Especially women. I think they're tired of shows where people are screaming at each other, throwing things at each other. It's an important lesson if you can tell a woman that she has choices, even if she's with a man who bullies and beats her. I'm going to stand up for that."

Sheindlin's frank talk and tough sentences made her a local celebrity. Prosecutors loved her tough sentences, defense attorneys feared her impatience, and Sheindlin was ready to ride the $120,000-a-year job out to a Florida retirement.

But in 1993, Los Angeles Times writer Josh Getlin asked to watch her work. Though New York's family proceedings are often closed to the press because of minors, Sheindlin is an advocate of transparent courts. Assuming Getlin was covering a case, she said he could sit in back, "as long as he isn't reading a paper or chewing gum," Sheindlin recalls.

'60 Minutes' of fame

She would learn that Getlin was there to do a story on Sheindlin, not criminals. The story was followed by a 60 Minutes interview with Morley Safer.

"I knew that this was a big deal, but I had no idea how big," she says. "At the time, my main concern was not coming off like some monster." So Sheindlin — the bane of New York's deadbeat dads, negligent moms and school-aged dope dealers — watched the show at home, under covers, in the dark.

She need not have worried. Hollywood offers rolled in. She and Getlin combined on the first of four best-selling books, Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining. Television came as easily as writing, says Randy Douthit, the show's director and executive producer. "She was as genuine the day the cameras rolled as she was in court," he says. "She really doesn't pay much attention to cameras and crew. Even here, she's all about the law."

Watching a taping of Judge Judy can be a little like watching a mouse get dropped into a pet boa's glass case. There'll be some tension, some dramatic buildup, perhaps an attempted escape. But eventually, that mouse is going to get swallowed whole.

So, too, do many of Sheindlin's hapless litigants (some of whom volunteer, while others are discovered by producers who go through court dockets looking for promising small-claims cases).
Her comebacks and criticisms might become TV quotables if she didn't top herself daily.

To a woman claiming emotional distress: "Emotional distress? You're causing me emotional distress, and you're not paying me."

To a man alleging his girlfriend, Monica, could vouch for his alibi — if only she had a cellphone: "Let me tell you something, sir. This is the 21st century. Everybody has a cellphone. Especially Monica."
To a woman whose story changes by version: "OK, now you get 30 seconds to make your case, because I'm not believing most of what you're saying. Go!"

By the end of the day, she has heard a week's worth of cases, which is about as fast as she moved in New York family court, where she made an average of 300 rulings a year.

Though that job was more satisfying when she put thugs away, Sheindlin says her second career offers an element she never expected: a chance to teach.

"I think there needs to be a message out there to women that even if your man beats you, even if you're scared for your life, you have choices," she says. "You have power. And if they need me to be that messenger, so be it. I can handle it."

Any objections?

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