Judge Judy's TV Court Isn't Real

We were operating under the misunderstanding that Judge Judy was a broadcast of an actual small claims court somewhere, but then our legal beagle intern Alex informed us that it’s really just arbitration dressed up to look like small claims court.

The power the judge has over the parties is granted by the contract of adhesion they sign to appear. If the defendant loses, the tv product team pays the plaintiff the judgment fee. If the judge finds for the defendant, both parties receive an appearance fee. The judges are not bound by real rules of procedure, evidence, or even behavior. Since it’s a contract of adhesion, a decision can only really be successfully appealed if the decision falls outside the scope of what’s in the contract.

So while the cases and people may be real, the courts could be held on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and still have the same effect. It’s all just part of the collective hallucination we call television.

The concern is that in making syndi-courts look like real courts, they can warp potential jurors attitudes about how a court case should be conducted. In a survey when asked whether a judge should be aggressive with litigants or express displeasure with testimony, 26.32% of non-frequent viewers said yes, and 63.76% of frequent viewers said yes.

Syndi-Court Justice: Judge Judy and Exploitation of Arbitration (PDF) [ABANET.org]

RELATED: What People On Judge Judy Don’t Know


Edit Your Comment

  1. Wormfather says:

    Ben, I hope we were using the sarcastic hat for that post.

  2. zephyr_words says:


    Judge Judith Sheindlin IS a real judge but she is working on a TV show in a fake courtroom. That doesn’t take away the fact that she is a judge though.


  3. Blueskylaw says:

    Does that mean she has to sell her personal jet and give up her 4 year $100 million Dollar contract?

  4. Michael Belisle says:

    Isn’t Judge Judy the one that rules on “common sense” instead of the law?

  5. Blueskylaw says:

    Please show up post.

  6. youbastid says:

    Wow, really? That whole disclaimer at the end of the show that states that it’s not a real court didn’t give it away?

  7. cabooglio says:

    Gosh… I really hope you didn’t actually believe that this had anything at all to do with the “real” legal system. Tell me you’re kidding.

    … or that you’re 9 years old.

    … and learning disabled.

    … and legally blind.

    … and entirely cut off from the outside world.

    Tell me that and I’ll forget this happened.

  8. So while the cases and people may be real, the courts could be held on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and still have the same effect.

    No, it would be more awesome.

  9. CaptainSemantics says:

    @zephyr_words: hehe, you beat me to it. :)

  10. UCLAJason says:

    All the “Judge” shows are technically arbitration. I think the small print says that the litigants also do not pay if they lose – as compensation for being on the show I think the show pays! I will do some research and update that later to tell you my findings.

  11. zephyr_words says:

    Haha, looks like they edited the post title now; that’s good.

  12. shan6 says:

    I hate those shows, if I want to see white trash, and black ghetto stereotypes I will go back to Detroit.

  13. FightOnTrojans says:

    My hope is that anyone who believes that these “judge” shows are real don’t ever end up on a jury. I hope that the system would wash them out.

    My sister was on Judge Judy many, many years ago. It is exactly as described previously. She had to drop her small claims case and agree to whatever Judge Judy decided. Fortunately, she won, and the show paid her, because we knew collecting from that asshat ex-fiancee of hers would be difficult.

  14. cabooglio says:

    @ SHAN6
    Way to represent for the D. Enjoy your time in Ohio, asshat.

  15. melmoitzen says:

    While it’s not a real court, JJ can still make life pretty miserable for the most stupid of participants–how often do folks expose themselves as welfare/disability cheats or abusive & incompetent parents by agreeing to participate in order to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the system?

    JJ is not shy about throwing these folks to the lions (CPS, Social Security, etc.)

  16. DrGirlfriend says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: I would totally watch a court show if it were held on the Enterprise. Also, it should be bound to Federation law, Picard should be the judge, Worf the bailiff, and Kirk the commentator.

  17. SOhp101 says:

    @zephyr_words: word.

    Most judges will just shut up and not give you warnings when you’re wrong, they’ll just kick you out.

  18. DallasDMD says:

    @belisle: No.

  19. Clutch414 says:

    I think it is a stretch to call “Judge Judy” arbitration.

    A more apt description would be to call it a game show with a really crotchety hostess. Neither party pays a cent.

    Anyways, people actually thought these were actual legal proceedings?!?!?!?

    We’re so screwed.

    Also, a show like this on the bridge of the Enterprise would add about 130% more awesome.

  20. balthisar says:

    Looks like the headline here differs from the RSS feed! I thought it was obvious that [i]all[/i] these court shows were just arbitrations, going all the way back to the original People’s Court.

    These guys/gals often don’t follow the law, and base their decisions on what “feels right.” Back when I was a kid I learned never to agree to this type of arrangement when Judge Wapner tore a landlord a new one because he’d (properly) put bleach into his well. Rather than checking his facts, he (wrongly) found for the plaintiff.

  21. UCLAJason says:

    I want to note other facts some may not realize. It is the litigants free choice to go on Judge Judy, if you want real courtroom procedures do not agree to arbitration. Further, in real small claims court many times the disagreement goes to arbitration. Small claims courts often do not have enough resources to hear every case so the litigants often agree to arbitration to expedite the adjudication of their dispute.

  22. humphrmi says:

    You guys just figured this out?

    Welcome to the 20th century.

  23. balthisar says:

    Oops, forgot to mention, these are even more funny on the Spanish channels, because there are a lot of illegal situations that are inherent with the Latino version of the typical trash that end up on these shows! Course you gotta know Spanish, and sometimes you have to be able to understand those wacky Caribbean accents.

  24. Clutch414 says:


    I thought they were frog marched into Judge Judy’s “courtroom” at gun point.

    (KIDDING!!) HA!!

  25. Gosh, it never occured to me that people were really dumb enough to think this was actually a court!

    Of course it is arbitration. The major attraction here is that no one who ‘looses’ is ever out 1 cent, the show pays the award not the looser.

  26. Ausoleil says:

    Next thing you know, we’re gonna see a post saying that wrestling is (gasp!) fake.

    At least Jerry Springer’s guest are real-life people with real-life troubles just like the rest of us? Doesn’t everyone have a trailer park where the neighbor’s boyfriend had a sex-change operation and married her daughter? That’s *real.*

  27. UCLAJason says:

    I thought so to.

    I think we should appreciate these shows for the comedy they are. You have people who go in there and think they can sue for the stupidest things or that they don’t have to pay for the stupidest reasons.

  28. The concern is that in making syndi-courts look like real courts, they can warp potential jurors attitudes about how a court case should be conducted.

    I recall reading an article a long way back about how cops and lawyers were worried that CSI would influence potential jurors’ ideas about what kind of evidence they should be able to present.

    However, I’m not sure how it would effect the outcome of a case if the jury is expecting the judge to yell at the litigants but get a judge that keeps their calm.

  29. D.B. Cooper-Nichol says:

    The “contract of adhesion” term is a little misleading in this scenario. This isn’t a situation where an arb clause is a part of an ordinary consumer contract, presented as a “take it or leave it” deal.

    Arbitration is the whole point of the contract in this case, so it’s pretty hard to argue that someone was “forced to go to arbitration” in exchange for . . . agreeing to arbitrate a dispute.

    Since the show pays the award (and the award is capped), it’s a pretty nice deal for someone willing to be humilated on TV.

  30. D.B. Cooper-Nichol says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation: The CSI syndrome is a very real worry among trial lawyers. I’m not sure I agree, but there is a lot of hand-wringing around cases that don’t have a lot of fancy scientific evidence, regardless of how strong the “traditional” evidence (witnesses, documents, etc).

  31. BeFrugalNotCheap says:

    Guys, Ben is making this up. It’s NOT true! Say it’s not TRUE!! Judge Judy IS REAL! Hold on, my meds are kicking in…..

  32. Three Word Chant says:

    I was almost on Judge Joe Brown and its the same thing – they pay appearance fees to both parties, and the court agrees to pay the settlement if there is one – its basically a win win for both parties so there’s an incentive to appear. As one commenter said, no one is forcing anyone to appear, so the normal Consumerist gripes about arbitration don’t really apply here.

  33. num1skeptic says:

    this is old news. anyone who thought court t.v. is real, just watches too much t.v.

  34. notallcompaniesarebad says:

    I can’t believe this was actually posted. I don’t know who should be more embarrassed: the author for writing it, or us for somehow giving the author the impression we are complete and utter fools.

  35. spinachdip says:

    You guys aren’t so good with sarcasm, are you? It’s the hot new thing on the interwebs, don’tcha know? Though that mutiny post – that was totes serious, for serious.

  36. spinachdip says:

    @notallcompaniesarebad: I think Ben should be embarrassed for giving his readers too much credit.

    Actually, if Ben’s guilty of anything, it’s burying the lede. I mean, really, really, really burying it. The operative part of this post is the final sentence.

  37. MercuryPDX says:

    Just wanted to echo that Judge Judy WAS a judge in the New York family court system for over 24 years; she was asked to be on the TV show as “arbitration judge” after she retired in 1996.

    As to warping potential jurors attitudes, it’s a serious leap from small claims court where litigants represent themselves and the decision lies solely with the judge, to a full-on jury trial.

    If your argument was saying that Court/Crime Drama Shows like Law And Order, Boston Legal, and Shark can warp potential jurors attitudes about how a court case should be conducted, then I would say Spot On. Add to that… the TV Drama versions are always more interesting and entertaining then their real life counterparts shown on Court TV and the news.

    Would you rather watch 2 hours of Law and Order or two hours of the Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson trials? Which one would make you want to sign up for Jury Duty?

  38. Personally, I’m disheartened that there are so many court shows on TV these days. These “game shows” have become somewhat of a dark reflection of our litigious nature.

  39. jenl1625 says:

    @FightOnTrojans: The only “good” reason to ever go on one of these “Court” shows is when one party simply can’t/won’t pay; and the only chance of getting your money is through essentially an “appearance fee”; and you’re in a situation where you need the money.

    Otherwise, take your chances on a game show where at least you know in advance whether or not it’s a “humiliate the contestants” game.

  40. loueloui says:

    Actually I thought the judgement portion was just a little bit different.

    From what I’ve read, both parties receive payment for their appearance. However any judgement made by JJ is subtracted from the losing parties’ appearance fee. It’s listed after the closing credits on the show.

    Also if you listen closely you’ll notice that Byrd says something like’Your honor this is case #10488 on the calendar… please be seated’. In a real court, like Law and Order, it would be a docket not a calendar.

  41. Curiosity says:

    @D.B. Cooper-Nichol:

    Thanks for mentioning that “Contract of Adhesion” is the wrong terminology to be used, it was irking me a bit. A common definition is:

    adhesion contract
    n.(contract of adhesion) a contract (often a signed form) so imbalanced in favor of one party over the other that there is a strong implication it was not freely bargained. Example: a rich landlord dealing with a poor tenant who has no choice and must accept all terms of a lease, no matter how restrictive or burdensome, since the tenant cannot afford to move. An adhesion contract can give the little guy the opportunity to claim in court that the contract with the big shot is invalid. This doctrine should be used and applied more often, but the same big guy-little guy inequity may apply in the ability to afford a trial or find and pay a resourceful lawyer.

    From: [dictionary.law.com]

    Why wasn’t the differentiation between arbitration and court picked up on? It seems a quick call to the program or even looking at wikipedia would have helped. [en.wikipedia.org]

    Good link to the aba website however

  42. smitty1123 says:

    I guess I just don’t see the appeal of watching Judge Judy. Now watching that chick on Maury who has brought in 47 guys trying to find her baby’s daddy? That is good TV!

  43. krom says:

    This is precisely how The People’s Court was, too. That’s also why Judge Wapner’s name plate said “Ret.” at the end.

    Besides, most courts won’t allow cameras or recording devices (except their own), so it hardly seems likely that there’d be one that agreed to show all cases. And besides, most courts, even small claims courts, have daily dockets longer than a half hour.

  44. Curiosity says:

    Btw, the arbitrator is bound by rules determined by the parties (through choice of institution or contract) enforced by contract law.

    You could have rules of evidence if you contracted for them, but it would defeat the point in some regards.

    Moreover, consumers should be aware that there are many types of alternative dispute resolution, including ones that do not give up rights.

    A good summary of the options that consumers can find in contracts and life can be found here: [www.abanet.org]

  45. Susie Felber says:

    You people really should see the clip of writer/performer Harmon Leon scamming Judge Joe Brown. And Leon’s writing about scamming judge shows in LA is gold.

    I wrote about the Judge Joe scam on my day job’s blog, a network that doesn’t show the fakey stuff, although people often confuse the two.


    Disclosure: I already said the above link was from my day job, but it’s really awesome, honest.

  46. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    My clients who had small claims court cases used to get calls all the time from the TV Courts asking them to remove their cases to the TV.

    The staffers flip through the files at the court houses finding “fun” cases.

    Honestly, if you don’t mind being on the TV it’s not a bad deal for the parties. Plaintiff’s get their money and Defendant’s aren’t out any.

  47. UCLAJason says:

    Here is someone who has really strong beliefs about Judge Judy and the fact that the show is not a real court:

  48. SpdRacer says:

    @zephyr_words: She used to be a judge, now she is a TV personality.

  49. seeeb says:

    Ben: Were you joking? It says so every time it comes on.

  50. Then why did Rusty and why does Bird carry a gun?

  51. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @cabooglio: I like the cut of your jib.

  52. weathernut says:

    Judge Judy scares me. She is always yelling at everyone “That’s bologni…it makes no sense”.

  53. @zephyr_words: Actually, there’s some question about her being a “judge.” In most states, judges are forbidden to accept money for acting as a judge in any capacity EXCEPT when in their courtrooms being paid by the state. It’s frequently an ethics violation that can result in being disbarred.

    I recall a few years back there was some brujaha over Judge Joe Brown, who I want to say is admitted in Kentucky?, because his state had particularly stringent rules about judges accepting money for related services.

  54. @Rectilinear Propagation: “I recall reading an article a long way back about how cops and lawyers were worried that CSI would influence potential jurors’ ideas about what kind of evidence they should be able to present.”

    CSI and its ilk certainly influence jurors’ ideas of how SOLID the evidence should be. We’ve had local cases where jurors demanded to know things like where the DNA evidence was (when there was none available at the scene) and why the bite marks weren’t conclusive or whatever, and didn’t seem to get real-world forensics isn’t quite so neat as it is on an hour show.

    There have also been a couple cases where jurors refused to convict in a CLEAR case when the evidence was witness testimony, but no forensic evidence had been gathered (because it was clearly unnecessary and we have a small budget for that kind of thing in my county).

  55. faust1200 says:

    @GitEmSteveDave: Rusty’s gun only shot dusty blanks. No innuendo here!

  56. @Eyebrows McGee: oh, I should add — because Judge Joe Brown was apparently still active — not retired — at the time.

  57. cosby says:

    I laugh at this being news although I guess we have americans that are that stupid. Hell I’ve watched judge judy before where she talks about the “court” being arbitration. They are open saying it is.

  58. D-Bo says:

    This is pretty much standard fare for all the court shows. Oh and I hate Judge Judy….

  59. topgun says:

    In case you didn’t know, professional wrestling isn’t real either. don’t make me get into the Santa Clause and Easter Bunny thing.

  60. rjhiggins says:

    @topgun: Is the “Santa Clause” another of those confounding legal terms like “Contract of Adhesion”?

  61. rjhiggins says:

    @topgun: Is the “Santa Clause” another one of those fancy legal terms like “Contract of Adhesion”?

  62. clocker says:

    Sign me up.
    Sears sold me a faulty dilithium crystal and refuses to replace it…

  63. Leohat says:

    The “People’s Court” show way back in the day had a on-air disclaimer that the narrator read that said something to the effect of “Both parties have agreed to dismiss their case and have their dispute settled here… [dramatic music] in THE PEOPLE’S COURT”

  64. Michael Belisle says:

    @DallasDMD: From [money.cnn.com] :

    “[Judge Judy’s] biggest mistake, however, is [the show’s] attention to the law. Koch, who as mayor appointed [Judy] Sheindlin to the family-court bench in 1982, says … ‘And I happen to know her. She’s a very nice lady. Judge Judy has said she makes decisions on the basis of common sense. And I have said, “That’s not what the law is all about.” We do it on the law. This is not a court of compassion; this is a court of law.'”

    So I guess the common-sense accusation was trash-talking from Judge Koch of The People’s Court (1997-1999). But by her own account from the same article,

    “For a judge, she seems surprisingly nonchalant about the law. ‘The law is supposed to be based on common sense. But in the last 25 or 30 years, legislatures have grafted onto the common-law statutes that sort of fit a particular scenario,’ she explains. ‘It’s something that I was frustrated with as a sitting judge in New York.'”

  65. Michael Belisle says:

    @belisle: Oh crap, I posted the wrong link. I meant “from [www.time.com],9171,988960,00.html “. If only editing was allowed…

  66. Michael Belisle says:

    I hate you Gawker Media’s Comment system. [preview.tinyurl.com] will get you there.

  67. etc says:

    Ummm, this was already well known…you have to be an idiot not to realize that it isn’t a real small claims court.

  68. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    The concern is that in making syndi-courts look like real courts, they can warp potential jurors attitudes about how a court case should be conducted.

    Absolutely, which is why Jury Duty should be banned. People who can’t tell the difference between TV and real life do not constitute “a jury of my peers”.

    Besides, can’t the same be said for every courtroom movie/tv drama ever made?

  69. PDX909 says:

    It’s not real? wow… who saw that coming?

  70. ct03 says:

    @commenters saying that this is common knowledge:

    Where were you guys in the earlier post when commenters were comparing Judge Judy to Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I don’t think it’s as well known as you think it is.

  71. I still remember the time Doug Lwelyn got bit by a dog. Funny he didn’t have his case settled in his forum, the People’s Court

  72. morganlh85 says:

    Wow, I knew this when I was like 12.

  73. alawrites says:

    I was on Judge Judy. I had a real small claims case against me and a producer called me! They offered me money to go on the show… the money was enough to sacrifice my dignity.

  74. etc says:


    I don’t believe for a second that someone knows who Ginsburg is, but doesn’t know Judge Judy is fake.


  75. vdestro says:

    The way I understand (back in the Wapner days anyway) how payments work is that there is a shared pool that both sides get paid from. The winner gets the portion from the other persons payment to cover the winnings.

    For example, (making numbers up) The pool is $5,000.
    If there is no money rewarded, they both get $2,500.
    If the plaintiff wins $2,000, let’s say, the plaintiff gets their share plus $2,000 from the defendant’s share for a total of $4,500 and the defendant gets $500.

    This is what I got from reading the little blurb at the end of the original People’s Court years and years ago. It may be totally wrong now.

  76. molife says:

    This would be a good post if this were April 1. Witty. Sarcastic. Sophisticated ruse.

    But it’s not April 1. So you come off like a contestant on Judge Judy.

    Oh. And yes. I did use the word “contestant”.

    And the world really isn’t flat. And…

    God! I can’t even believe we’re posting on this. Maybe this is a Consumerist stupid test to see how many of us will bite.

  77. timsgm1418 says:

    I’d actually like to see Kirk as the bailiff

  78. joellevand says:

    It’s not the trials that I worry about with JJ-type shows intersecting with real life: it’s the pro se litigants. There’s very little respect for the bench in the court I work in with the pro se litigants — they swear, shout over each other, dress like trash, and are completely ignorant about even the most basic rules of evidence (for example: you can’t hand write additional ‘evidence’ onto a bill so that your Visa Statement that only shows a payment to Macy’s has ‘sexy lingerie for his GIRLFRIEND’ on it in divorce court because you cannot find the actual receipt. True story, by the way.)

    I once clerked for a judge who asked a litigant “Do you see a doily around my neck?” When the litigant responded “No” the judge replied, “then stop trying to do me like I’m Judge Judy! This is a real court, not television where — much like wrestling, game shows, and Survivor — nothing you see is real! Now act like a civilized human being or get out of my courtroom!”

  79. joellevand says:

    Also, and I really hate myself for even thinking of typing this but: in defense of Judge Judy, she’s a *family* court judge, and family court isn’t a court strictly of law, but of equity — at least in this state. There is (contrary to popular belief) no law that says “if he cheats on you, you get x% of what he has”. That’s why pre-nups are important if you have cash. There’s also very few laws dealing with who gets custody in dissolution (divorce) or non-dissolution (not divorced/never married) cases, etc. This state only came up with strict rules for child support in the last ten years. Grandparents, by law, have no right to visitation. Etc. Family court is about the judge doing what they are charged to do: finding what is “fair, equitable, and what is in the best interest of the parties” when the parties cannot or will not do so for themselves.

  80. joellevand says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: I *hope* there was more than just witness testimony in that case, as we all know just how unreliable witnesses (even in large numbers) can be.

  81. Debbie Redman says:

    I enjoy watching judge Judy. I think she is a touch no non sense person. Perhaps we could clean up this country if she was in the white house! Bring the good old boys club to their knees