Keep Everyone In Jail All The Time: The Judge Judy Philosophy


On Thursday April 22, 2010, Ms. Janay Elwood, a plump, round-faced young lady in her mid-twenties, appeared on an episode of the TV show Judge Judy to defend the claim she owed her ex-boyfriend, Jalfred, nearly $7000 in car repayments. She said the car was his responsibility. He said it was in her name. The facts of the case may have remained cloudy, but one thing was painfully clear: if Ms. Elwood had arrived at the show expecting sympathy, she was barking up the wrong tree. “Give me a break,” Judge Judy snarled at her from the bench, her face a steely mask of poorly hidden contempt. Janay looked shocked. “There was no contract…” she began to explain.  But Judge Judy was having none of it. “Shut up and listen,” she countered. “You have one mouth and two ears for a reason, do you understand me?” Janay lost the case and Jalfred was awarded $5000.

Judith Sheindlin was born in Brooklyn in 1942 to German immigrant parents Ethel and Murray Blum, people she describes respectively as “a meat-and-potatoes kind of gal” and “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” She went to law school, became a corporate lawyer and then worked in the family courts, where she rose to be a respected judge and met her second husband, Jerry, who is also a judge. In 1996 she was approached by Big Ticket Television and offered her own show. She accepted. And so she became Judge Judy, a role that has made her familiar to the daytime viewing populations of countries around the world and in which she will stay until at least 2015, what will be her nineteenth season on air. This year she will earn $45 million.

Judge Judy is celebrated for being what is often euphemistically called ‘tough’ or ‘no-nonsense,’ but what is more accurately described as just plain rude. She is also known for her catchphrases – what her fans call ‘Judyisms’ – such as “That’s a load of baloney,” “Beauty fades, dumb is forever,” and “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” the latter of which is also the title of her first book. Just as surely as night follows day, when you have a lot of free time on your hands and a copy of a book written by TV’s very own Judge Judy, only one thing is going to happen. So I read it.

Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining outlines Judge Judy’s philosophy on crime and punishment, with solutions for law enforcement problems that she assures us “Nobody dares come up with” (this claim – a line that smacks awfully hard of the old “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking” chestnut that’s used by people who say things no one else is thinking at all – should perhaps be seen for what it is: a red flag of things to come).

The book opens with the briefest of glimpses at the woman beneath the robes – married, divorced, remarried – and then launches into a polemic on the evils of the welfare state, the benefits of lengthy imprisonment and the wastefulness of prisoner rehabilitation programs. Early on in the piece, Judge Judy introduces a series of case studies supposedly designed to reinforce the tough-nut courtroom persona she portrays on TV, but which actually just reveal her to be simply a nut, full-stop. Some sample text:

First up is Elmo, fifteen, who weighs 160 pounds [for some reason she appears to have a preoccupation with offenders’ weight] and has an IQ of 90. He has been charged for a second time with selling crack cocaine.

The boy’s lawyer offers the defense that his client’s difficulties began when his grandmother died, and suggests that rather than a term of imprisonment, it would be more appropriate to release him into his mother’s custody. Judge Judy, needless to say, is not buying it. As she proudly recalls:

‘Get a better story!’ I fire back, startling the boy, who has a smug look on his face. ‘Nobody goes out and sells drugs because Grandma died!’

It almost goes without saying that Judge Judy has little time for young offenders. The chapter headed “If Your Killer is Only Fifteen, Are You Any Less Dead?” seems to advocate trying and imprisoning juveniles alongside seasoned adult offenders. This idea of treating children like adults is difficult to reconcile with her promotion of a national curfew for minors, which she bases on the fact that her parents made her go to bed each evening at 9 PM.

Boil it down and Judge Judy’s argument is essentially that perpetrators are solely responsible for their crimes. She is sick of offenders blaming society for their actions – what she calls the “cult of victimhood” (addressed at some length in the chapter imaginatively titled “Criminals Are Not Victims, They Are Criminals”) – and believes in tough sentences and tough prisons in which to serve them: “Who cares if prison is a miserable existence?” she writes. “Hopefully, if we make it so unpalatable, criminals will think twice about returning.”

Her response to the concept of prisoner rehabilitation programs is similarly dismissive: she tells us that she “would not lose a moment’s sleep” if “Charles Manson never achieves inner peace – or a Ph.D.” Here she’s either displaying a stunning level of ignorance about what rehabilitation programs actually entail, or else – perhaps even worse – she truly believes this stuff. It takes a particular talent to make a successful lawyer and seasoned judge sound like your average lunatic shock-jock.

In Judge Judy’s world, offenders commit crimes entirely of their own accord, but she says a lack of harsh punishment can make a life of crime even more tempting. She recounts an anecdote in which her friend David, a legal aid lawyer in New York, arrived at his office one morning to find “a homeless man sleeping on his couch in urine-stained paints.” Judge Judy informs us the gentleman had come from a park across the road from the courthouse, which she describes as “an outdoor hotel for the homeless.” She tells us her “first question was whether the police had been called” and laments the fact that although the homeless man had entered his office illegally, David felt sorry for him and was reluctant to have him prosecuted:

In our society, the risk of antisocial conduct should be the threat of getting caught. Yet David took that threat away… he basically suggested that this conduct was OK.

But the downtrodden are not simply content to break into our offices and sleep on our couches. There is a greater evil at work here. In the chapter “Take Responsibility For Your Life – And Take Your Hands Out of Our Pockets” – a section of the book that sits uncomfortably alongside the fact she is a millionaire many times over – she turns her attention to welfare.

Judge Judy outlines the story of a woman whose husband was diagnosed with cancer. Before he began chemotherapy treatment, knowing it would likely render him infertile, he had a sample of his sperm frozen. Sadly, his treatment was unsuccessful and he passed away shortly thereafter. Once he died, his widow used this frozen sperm to become pregnant and gave birth to a healthy young child. But, now a single mother and struggling to make ends meet, she applied for welfare payments to assist her with the costs of raising her new baby. Judge Judy is unimpressed. “Her husband was dead, and then she had a child. Yet here she was, asking taxpayers to foot the bill for a new baby.”

“A new baby,” Judge Judy writes. You could be forgiven for thinking this woman was stockpiling Land Rovers.

The topic of motherhood is one to which she returns to in the chapter “Do You Have a Constitutional Right to Give AIDS to Your Babies?” in which Judge Judy tells us of a woman – a drug addict – who has four children, two of whom were born HIV-positive. She questions how we can remedy this situation, how we can find a way to prevent her from having more children because “It may take years before she dies of AIDS.” What a shame.

“Why should she be allowed to take six children to the grave with her, after considerable pain…” Judge Judy asks the reader, which seems like a worthwhile point. But just when it sounded like she was at danger of providing a reasonable, compassionate perspective on the issue, she steals away the illusion, adding the kicker: “…and all at public expense.”

The solution the good judge comes up with is, perhaps unsurprisingly, punishment. Prison, specifically. She’s a keen supporter of sentencing drug-addicted mothers to jail terms (“If the only penalty for having more crack babies is loss of custody, where is the incentive to stop?”) and tells us about a time when she tried to introduce a practice whereby courts would show drug-addicted mothers “a short film of the birth of a premature, drug-addicted baby suffering the tremors of withdrawal” and sadly bemoans the fact that she “could not overcome the politically correct, liberal left who blocked my crack film proposal.” Adding, “that should not stop us from trying again.” Crack film proposal? Crackpot, more like it.

After a touch over 200 pages of these solutions “Nobody dares come up with,” the only surprising thing is that they’re not more severe. This is, after all, a woman who has clearly long since been cast adrift from reality. Why stop at prison? Why not go the whole hog and give these evil drug addicts the chair? Plug ’em in, light ’em up, and then we’ll see who wants more kids.

The thing is, Judge Judy may well have a point about the imperfection of the welfare state. She might not be completely off track when she calls for improvements to the system. But she does her best to obscure these budding ideas behind a selection of the most poorly chosen examples – here is the homeless person seeking shelter in a lawyer’s office; here is the widow whose husband has died of cancer; here is the drug-addled AIDS victim, pregnant again. To even your most hard-line, right-wing campaigner, these people just don’t have the ring of the devious welfare cheat. And even if they did offer to hand Judge Judy back her precious, hard-earned tax dollars, I doubt she could reach it while she’s so firmly saddled on her high horse.

But none of that seems to trouble our Judy. For her, in life there are only criminals and those they prey upon. She couldn’t care less if you were from a broken home, or if you have learning difficulties, or if your parents used to beat you like a drum. Disadvantage is just a motive. Poverty is an excuse. She is a woman for whom the world is as black and white as the robes in which she judges it. What a load of baloney.

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