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The new courtroom television program starring Houston trial lawyer Larry Joe Doherty as judge and featuring a cast of real-life litigants from the Lone Star State is doing little to diffuse stereotypes about Texas. The studio in Houston serving as Judge Larry Joe Doherty’s courtroom is decorated with rustic touches and wood in a style reminiscent of a 1950s Western. All it’s missing is piped-in music of Sheb Wooley singing “Rawhide.” The bailiff is an actual Harris County sheriff’s deputy with a baby face, booming voice and imposing stature. The litigants are culled from justice-of-the-peace dockets throughout Texas and the Southwest. Then there’s Doherty, a 54-year-old Texas native who speaks with a drawl and learned a little bit about putting on a courtroom show in 31 years of trying cases. He strides into the courtroom at Fox studios in boots peeping out from beneath his black robe. For the show, he’s called Larry Joe. But that’s exactly what Fox Television wants for “Texas Justice.” “He’s like no one else on TV right now — genuine sense of humor, genuine cowboy, horse-riding, bright,” says Lee Gonsalves, senior vice president of programming and development for 20th Television, a unit of Fox Television. “Texas Justice” is on a 13-week run, airing five days a week in Houston and Dallas and four other Fox stations in the South. Broadcasts began the week of March 26. The show is taped at KRIV-TV in Houston before a studio audience; many of those court-watchers are people who dabble in acting with roles as extras in feature films and television tapings. Doherty says he wants the show to stand out from the pack of courtroom television shows. He believes that some of the other TV judges give short shrift to the litigants’ stories, and he intends to let them have their say. While some of the cases have a real Texas flavor, like the fuss involving two cowboys and a horse trailer, many are universal disagreements over money and hurt feelings. It’s the accent and attire of the plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses that make the show shout Texas. The court cases are real, but the litigants are given some direction on how to appear on TV, such as where to stand in the courtroom and where to look during the taping. In a trio of tapings on March 15, all the cases before Doherty were, not surprisingly, disputes over money. In the first case, a woman sued her ex-boyfriend for $1,000 that she says she loaned him to buy a truck so he could go visit his children. The mustachioed defendant filed a counterclaim, seeking the return of a number of his possessions from her house, including a microwave, two televisions and a lawnmower. After determining the couple didn’t want to get back together, Doherty ruled in the woman’s favor, ordering the defendant to repay the $1,000. But when the woman angrily swung a door and stomped out of the courtroom, bailiff William Bowers quipped, “Didn’t she win?” The defendant doesn’t really have to pay $1,000 to his ex-girlfriend — “Texas Justice” does. That’s the benefit to the litigants who agree to let Doherty hear their suits instead of a real justice of the peace. Of course, they also get their 15 minutes of fame on television. Doherty rhetorically asked the litigants in the second case whether they wanted justice or revenge. In that case, a young woman filed suit against her sister’s best friend, alleging the woman was spreading untruths about her and her 3-year-old daughter in a handwritten letter she mimeographed and distributed around their apartment complex. The offended woman sought $1,000 in damages. But the defendant countersued for $1,000. She testified she distributed the letters in retaliation after the tires on her car were slashed, preventing her from going to church. The women were clearly angry at each other and laced their comments with profanity, arm waving and finger pointing. Doherty warned them to watch their language, saying, “If anybody gets to cuss here, it’s me.” At one point, he blew a whistle to get the women to stop arguing; he later asked Deputy Bowers to stand between them in the courtroom. “Do you know what libel is?” Doherty asked the defendant, explaining the definition. “It’s all true,” the defendant said about the information in the letter. Doherty ruled against both and suggested they learn to act like adults. In the third case, a San Antonio man was trying to collect $3,800 from his allegedly “deadbeat brother.” According to testimony, the brother, who works as a paralegal, borrowed a total of $450 from their parents in 1998 to cover his mortgage payment. Their mother testified she raised the $450 by borrowing $200 from the plaintiff and getting the remaining $250 by pawning her wedding rings. With the debt unpaid for more than two years, the plaintiff filed suit to collect the $450, plus another $2,350 he added to the debt in penalties. The paralegal testified he didn’t repay the debt because his priorities are to take care of his wife and children. He also pointed out that his family has no written contract requiring him to repay the loan. But his mother testified he failed to cough up the money even after he was asked to help his ill father pay for some medication. Doherty ordered the paralegal to repay the $450. “Do you realize I don’t have the power to make a better man of him?” Doherty asked the mother. “I can make him pay for his dad’s medicine.” VINDICATION Doherty says the cases are about much more than money. “Here the underlying issues were more often than not vindication, justification, hurt feelings,” he says. “The pain that these folks are in is just as important as district court litigants arguing over hundreds and thousands and millions of dollars.” He suggests the people who bring their disputes to “Texas Justice” get more time to air their complaints on the TV show than they would in a state court. Just like an official judge, Doherty reads the court files before he takes the bench. But he says he wouldn’t be able to decide the disputes without hearing from the parties and seeing their anger and hearing their sometimes untenable claims. Doherty says shows like “Texas Justice” are popular because of the public’s fascination with the judicial system. “Is it real? You betcha. Is it interesting? Yea, we hope so, but the social question is why,” he says. “I think it’s healthy. There were some people who really had no cases at all, no evidence, no proof, but by golly, they wanted to come in and say how bad a neighbor they had living next to them.” He says he’s having a blast being Judge Larry Joe — being a TV judge is something he’s always wanted to do. “To me, there’s no camera in the courtroom,” he says. “I don’t know how my peers will judge it. I could say I don’t care, but I’d be lying to you. I hope everybody loves it.” Doherty beat out a number of lawyers and retired judges for the role as judge on the show; about 10 took a screen test last fall. Gonsalves won’t identify the other aspiring TV judges, but she says Doherty won the role easily: “Television is just good to him. He just has a genuine charisma.” Doherty, a partner in Doherty & Wagner, is paid to appear on the show. He won’t reveal his salary, but says it’s nowhere near enough to give up his trial practice. Because the show tapes on Fridays and Saturdays, he says it will have little impact on his practice. Bowers, the bailiff, changed his shift at the Harris County Detention Center to accommodate the taping, but he suggests his role is good public relations for the sheriff’s department. Bowers says he was “discovered” in October 2000 by a producer who saw him working an extra job at a Whole Foods grocery store in Houston. “One of the producers walked up and said, ‘You’re the one,’ ” Bowers recalls. “ I said, ‘I’m the what?’ “ He adds, “At first I thought it was a hoax.”

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