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Judith Sheindlin, better known as the television personality “Judge Judy,” was recently reported to have said, while on a speaking tour of Australia, that her answer to the free needle program intended to help alleviate America’s drug problem would be to “give them dirty needles and hope they die.” Sheindlin has since denied making the comment. But the flap provides an example of the power — and the potential for abuse — in television, this time in the context of our courts and the administration of justice. If made, the comment, inappropriate and inhumane as it is, is bad enough. The greater problem involving this and other such incidents, however, is that it involves someone whom the public erroneously believes to be a legitimate representative of the American judiciary. As one who is involved with both television and the courts, on one hand as an actor/producer and the other as a member of the state Commission on Judicial Performance, I find it of particular concern that the current crop of pseudo-court shows is thought by the television audience to be authentic. This is evidenced — somewhat ironically — by the fact that the public regularly submits complaints about Judge Judy and other TV judges to the Commission. Obviously, many people don’t understand that Judge Judy and most of her cohorts are not present members of any judiciary. To preside in TV courts they don’t even have to be lawyers. All they have to be is brazen enough to put on a robe and pick up a gavel and obnoxious enough to draw attention to themselves. California’s Commission on Judicial Performance is an independent state agency made up of three actual judges, two lawyers and six members of the public. Commissioners meet seven to eight times a year to examine complaints against judges and administer discipline when warranted. The purpose of our work, of course, is to protect the public from exactly the kind of thoughtless, mean-spirited and destructive behavior that pours forth from the “courtrooms” of our television screens every day. It is thus a source of great frustration to us and, I have to assume, to the dedicated, intelligent, dignified and serious-minded jurists who make up the vast majority of the 1,600 members of California’s judiciary, that what spews from the screens in their homes so misleads the public. The rude, contentious and flagrantly biased histrionics that are the hallmarks of these shows are in direct contradiction to the standards mandated in the Code of Judicial Ethics and would be subject to careful scrutiny if occurring in any of today’s courtrooms. Canon 3 of the Code provides that, “A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants . . . and others whom the judge deals with in an official capacity,” and that, “A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice.” Because the Code expressly recognizes that “public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges,” Canon 2 requires a judge to act “at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” To this end, the Code requires high standards of conduct, specifying that “the prohibition against behaving with impropriety or the appearance of impropriety applies to both the professional and personal conduct of a judge.” In the case of real judges in America, high standards are enforced as to both personal and professional conduct on and off the bench, even on tours in Australia. The Judge Judys of our world, proliferating as they are on television today, speak to a volatile mix of elements in the American psyche: frustration, a sense of powerlessness, an almost prurient interest in the dark side of human behavior, fascination with the legal process and a desire for swift vengeance. Enabled by television’s willingness to capitalize on anything that will draw an audience, no matter how degrading, the damage done by these fake judges and those who agree to air their cases in pseudo-courtrooms in exchange for money and fifteen minutes of fame is considerable, if not yet fully calculable. As television’s treasury is fattened, the public’s faith in the dignity of the courts is diminished. As standards for judicial conduct are set by imposters accountable to no one, their immature antics tarnish the reputation of dedicated public servants. Authentic judges have few effective means to counter this erosion of public expectations even as they are required to deal with inappropriate behavior of litigants, much of it imitative of what they’ve seen on “the tube.” Thus, frustration grows and the attraction to the bench dims for those who have the qualities most needed: patience, dignity, reverence for the law and respect for the public. As a member of the Commission on Judicial Performance with an obligation to promote public confidence in the judiciary, Judge Judy and her kind make me wish our authority extended into their “courtrooms.” As a producer in the television industry, I’m saddened that my contemporaries apparently don’t understand their obligation to the same public. “Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute” does harm and requires discipline for the good of the community. Who’s minding the gavel? Mike Farrell, a member of California’s Commission on Judicial Performance, currently appears in NBC’s “Providence.”

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