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“You are an able-bodied person, OK?” the judge snapped at the defendant. “There are a lot of jobs out there. I suggest you go find one.” If the line had been delivered on one of daytime TV’s courtroom shows, it likely would have drawn applause from a viewing public that seemingly can’t get enough of justice with an attitude. But since it was a real-life courtroom, the state of California censured the judge for a pattern of browbeating people who came before him, and the judge, Fred Heene Jr., retired earlier this year from the San Bernardino Superior Court bench. The fact that some people fail to distinguish between mouthy TV judges and their judicious counterparts is a source of increasing dismay for the Commission on Judicial Performance, the California body that monitors judges’ behavior. The commission regularly receives letters urging discipline for “Judge Judy” and her cohorts, says commission counsel Victoria Henley. “Equally unsettling are the people who know the difference and write us to complain that when they went to court, the judges didn’t act like they do on television.” The commission doesn’t tally how many of these complaints it gets, because all misdirected letters — those concerning federal judges and lawyers, as well as TV performers — are lumped together. But there are enough that the commission has crafted a new response. “The first ones, we just sent out the standard reply that the commission has jurisdiction over only sitting California judges,” says Henley. “Now we’re telling people that they should send their complaints to the TV stations and to the producers of the shows.” There are also enough letters that Commissioner Mike Farrell says the topic comes up every time the 11-member commission meets. That’s why Farrell, an actor-producer and one of the lay members on a board that also includes lawyers and judges, has distributed for publication a denunciation of the TV judges. “The purpose of our work 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,” Farrell writes. “As standards for judicial conduct are set by impostors accountable to no one, their immature antics tarnish the reputation of dedicated public servants.” Farrell, who co-starred in NBC’s M.A.S.H., added in a telephone interview that he had yet to hear a member of the commission defend any aspect of the shows, even as the genre grows more popular. The May television sweeps period showed that five of the six top-rated court programs — Judge Judy, People’s Court, Divorce Court, Judge Joe Brown, and The Judge Marcus Show — draw more viewers than they did last year at this time, with only Judge Mills Lane losing ground. “Sure, the programs are satisfying,” Farrell acknowledges. “If a guy in a black hat misbehaves and a guy in a white hat shoots him dead, that’s satisfying too. But we’re supposed to have progressed beyond that.” Not unexpectedly, the television gavel-bangers have heard it all before and are unrepentant. Those who once were real judges insist they’ve always been outspoken. Judith Sheindlin’s Judge Judy is the ratings leader as well as the most ferocious. She says she first used her TV line “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining” back when she was hearing family court cases in Manhattan. “I occasionally read articles where law professors complain about what they perceive to be my lack of appropriate judicial temperament,” she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year. “I’ve heard complaints like that for 25 years.” The president of the California Judges Association, David Danielsen of San Diego Superior Court in California, says that, sadly, he’s not surprised TV judges get reported to the commission — or that some litigants are disappointed when they merely win a case without a judge humiliating their opponents. “There is a lot of venting out there, a lot of mental health exercises by the public. Let’s say televised portrayals are not among my top 10 judicial administration concerns,” he observed. “Judge Judy is a disgrace. But what are you going to do?”

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