Here Come the TV Judges

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Edward I. Koch and Judith B. Sheindlin
Title: Here Come the TV Judges
VTR: 4/20/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I know one of today’s two guests quite well. Indeed, he’s been on this program many times before. The other I’ve only watched presiding on television, and then once literally bumped into her when we were boarding the same plane for Hollywood, of all places. Yet they actually shared a major portion of the front page of the once-austere New York Times some months ago. And I thought at the time, as my grandmother used to say, that I ought to take a lesson. For there was the bigger-than-life headline on TV’s docket, Judge Koch versus Judge Judy. Referring, of course, to the fact that here in New York from 4:00 to 5:00 any weekday afternoon one could watch either The People’s Court presided over by New York’s indominatable former Mayor Edward I. Koch, or Judge Judy, with Judith B. Sheindlin, former supervising judge of Manhattan’s Family Court, who in real life had been appointed by His Honor Ed Koch when he presided not on TV but rather in City Hall.

Now, aside from the matter of both The People’s Court and Judge Judy being what one law professor characterized as “a legal version of a soap opera,” it’s law and a game show wrapped up in one. I wonder what learned commentaries my guests today would offer on Jan Hoffman’s front-page New York Times argument that these programs, and let me quote from the Times story: “These programs can also be seen as the merry offspring of two television phenomenon: Judge Lance Ito, and Jerry Springer. The Simpson trial created a public appetite for legal programs. But it also let loose widespread dissatisfaction with the justice system, particularly in the figure of its seemingly ineffective administrator, Judge Ito. At the same time, the television talk shows, founded on the viewers’ interest in other people’s really weird problems, had spun out of control.”

And so, your Honors, I ask what’s your verdict on that assumption.

SHEINDLIN: Well, first, I think that the fact that the American public seemed to be frustrated with the Simpson trial and with Judge Ito’s conduct in maintaining control of his courtroom had a great deal to do with the success of both of our programs. Because, you know, the American public pays a lot of money for a very pricey judicial system. And they watched this trial. And whether you agree with the verdict or not is not material to the premise that this man — and he was probably a very nice man and a very good judge — he let the actors take control of his courtroom from the very beginning, costing the taxpayers in California tens of millions of dollars, with a frustrating result. So I think that that trial was good for a resurgence of our genre, and I don’t think that the analogy to Jerry Springer is a valid one. As a matter of fact, there was a subsequent article in The New York Times that talked about the real-life judicial system and how much more satisfying it was to turn on our programs than to listen to the gobbledygook and nonsense that goes on in a real trial. So I take some issue with Jan Hoffman, although she’s a terrific girl and I usually like what she writes.

KOCH: The programs — and Judy is a phenomenon across the country, she’s number one. And, you know where my pride is? I appointed her…

SHEINDLIN: Yes, you did.

KOCH: …and her husband.

SHEINDLIN: Yes, you did.

KOCH: She to the family court, he to the criminal court. And they were amongst my best appointments. And I’m very proud of what she has done over the several years. My only claim to fame in this area, my producer tells me, we’re number one of the new syndicated shows for this year. She’s been on several years. So, while I may never reach her heights, I hope to do better.

Now, with respect to the analysis: We are both educational and entertainment. Both. Admittedly. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s an outrage to even refer to Jerry Springer on this program. He’s so coarse. He’s so terrible. I don’t know about personally, but I’m talking about his show. And ought to be taken off the air. Not for censorship. Not at all. But because people would say, “I don’t like that.” But they don’t; they love it.

HEFFNER: That’s the point.

KOCH: And that’s regrettable, that he has appealed to the basest nature of people.

Now, with respect to Judge Ito. Regrettably, he is not the only failure in judicial circles that people know about as it relates to their failure to control their courtrooms. We have one in upstate New York now involving Reverend Sharpton where the judge has just lost control of his courtroom. But both Judy and I, I believe, do control our courtrooms. And we do it through persuasion and, because we don’t have the power of contempt, we’re in the nature, really, of arbitrators. But through persuasion and respect for those who are there. If something takes place in my courtroom where someone begins to engage in, not just foul language, which everybody would be interested in stopping, but if there’s racism, I stop it immediately. If there is an attempt to get into the personal lives of the people on the other side, I stop it, as best I can. And I do get the cooperation, as I know that she does. Because I will tell you when I, we’re on the same time, but we’re both taped. And occasionally if I get home early…

HEFFNER: You watch?

KOCH: If I get home early, which is occasional, I don’t watch myself, because I know myself. I watch her. [Laughter] I want to learn.

HEFFNER: Judge Judy, you do the same thing?

SHEINDLIN: I do. I do.

HEFFNER: So what do you learn? What do you two learn watching each other?

SHEINDLIN: We have different styles, Ed and I. And I think I enjoy watching his. You know, he has more of a laid-back style. I sat in the family court for 15 years thanks to this man over here, and ten years before that as a practicing attorney there. And I had to develop a fast-paced style. You know? You had 50 cases to hear during the course of the day. You had to do triage. You knew that there were 175 or 200 people waiting out there to see you, and you had to say, “Look, tell me a story. No adjectives, no adverbs. Get to the point.” Because if I don’t get to the point in this case and get the information that I need to make even an interim judgment, those people are going to be left there five o’clock at night without a decision. So when I get cases in there, people want to give me a lot of crap, I say to them, “Look, this is, we’re not going back to the flood. Right? March 18, that’s the date we’re talking about. Let’s get to it.” He’s a little kinder. But I’m going to tell you, this is his first full year. By the time he gets to his third year of listening to some of these noodniks, he’s going to lose a little patience. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: He won’t be so kind?

KOCH: I will tell you my raison d’être as I see my situation now. I believe it’s fair to refer to me as avuncular in nature, uncle, as it were, because I believe that when people enter a courtroom, even our courtroom, and they’re sworn, and they know that if they don’t tell the truth it could be perjury, and we have referred matters to the attorney general in some areas where perjury was involved. So I want to put them at ease. I want them not to feel frightened. Because there is a certain fear that is involved. And so my style is to make that clear. And then, I follow Judge Wapner. And as I always say when they ask me about him, “Well, he’s from California, he’s orange juice; I’m from New York, I’m seltzer.” I do more cross-examining than he did. But he was a very good judge, and I’m proud to follow him on that show.

HEFFNER: You know, you say you do more cross-examining. And I want to really ask you both: What changes in the American judicial system would you recommend based upon your experiences, of all places, on television?

SHEINDLIN: Oh, well, please don’t limit me to just the experiences on television.

HEFFNER: You’re liable to say something libelous.

SHEINDLIN: No, it won’t be libelous. I think that we should, the American, at least in the area of criminal justice, do away with parole entirely. I think that one of the worst things that we initiated in this country was giving somebody good-behavior credit points because they walked into jail, because they behaved themselves. You walk into jail, you’re supposed to behave yourself. That seems logical to me. So if you sentence somebody to 15 years, and they get a third knocked off of their sentence because they don’t kill somebody, and because they get up and brush their teeth like they’re supposed to do every morning, to me that’s ridiculous. As a result of that, there is a diminished respect for a criminal justice system. So that would be one thing that I would change.

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. Don’t go further. What do you think about parole?

KOCH: Well, I think she’s on the right track there. I would adopt the federal system, which gives you 15 percent off of your term for good behavior so as to encourage people not to do things that might keep them there some additional time. But there is no parole. You serve your full sentence. Whereas, in some courts around the, in some states around the nation, you serve half of your term and then you’re up for parole. And then the purpose is to get you out. So, for example, you had that fellow who raped and cut off the arms of a young woman in California. And he served eight years. He came to Florida, and he killed another woman. I think he’ll now be sentenced to death; Florida’s much tougher. I just wrote to Governor Wilson, who at the time of the original incident, I said, “How could you do this? How could he get a parole under those terrible circumstances?” And my recollection is he wrote back it was mandatory in California. So I just wrote to him telling him (undoubtedly he knew about it) about the new sentence that this guy had gotten in Florida, and asking whether California laws had been changed so that parole would not be given again in such a situation.

HEFFNER: You both think we’re too soft? Is that the word?

SHEINDLIN: I think that we’re placing, we place the wrong emphasis in the criminal justice system on rehabilitation, because unfortunately we as a community have not figured out how to rehabilitate criminals.

HEFFNER: Why, because we won’t pay for it?

SHEINDLIN: Why? No. That’s the argument. They say, “Well, we haven’t spent enough.”

HEFFNER: Well, what about that argument.

SHEINDLIN: “We haven’t spent enough.” Listen, we spend billions, trillions of dollars to try to figure out. We gave them libraries and weight rooms, access to the courts. We provide them with priests, we provide them with nurses. We provide them with anything you want. Small animals to sacrifice. They want crunchy peanut butter, we give it to them. Listen, we haven’t figured out what works yet. So as far as I’m concerned, why don’t we just pare down both the adult system and the juvenile system, where we spend, by the way, $85,000 a year to keep one juvenile in jail for one year.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “pare down?”

SHEINDLIN: Pare down. You get a bed, three meals a day. You get one book to read at a time, you get education. And you have a job to do that you have to do. Other than that, we take all the money that we save. As far as I’m concerned, that money should be invested in the kids, in the 95 percent of the kids who are on the cusp, who don’t have a nice, two-parent home and don’t go to the best schools, who, you know, couldn’t get a good education unless they had some assistance, who can’t get a part-time job, who can’t get a summer job. I would take all that money and say to those kids, “Look, we know that you haven’t had your birthright, with is a nice, reasonable family and somebody who really will nurture you. We as a community would prefer to invest in you.” Instead, we’re investing in the riff-raff. We’re investing in the people that force us to live behind gated communities and with a doorman and a concierge. That’s ridiculous. We are putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Put it in the kids who aren’t going out there and mugging the old lady and throwing her down the stairs for her pocketbook.

HEFFNER: Which stems from your belief: no rehabilitation, no efforts.

SHEINDLIN: What I’m saying is, it hasn’t been demonstrated that it works. We’ve tried it for the last 25 or 30 years. What else would you like us to do?

KOCH: You have enormous recidivism. I would keep, and I’m sure Judy would as well, the programs to get them off of drugs and alcohol. They’re in jail, they are captives, and those programs, so that when they go out, hopefully many of them would not return to the addiction. But I would also do something else. I notice now, particularly because we’ve had these killings performed by an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, and the question is: What do you do with them? And then there’s always a sense of outrage: “Kill ‘em.” There are people who want to bring the death penalty down to 11 years old. I mean, it’s dumb. It’s ridiculous. It’s never going to happen. And it also makes society appear to be ridiculous. But, on the other side, to have laws that say that you commit a crime when you’re 11 or 13 and you’re a minor, that you get out when you’re 18 no matter what the nature of the crime, that too is ridiculous. So there should be a restructuring. You ought to be able to keep juveniles longer if you think at the time that they reach their majority, 18 or 21, whatever it happens to be in the particular state, that they still are dangerous. And if they are dangerous, that there be an extended term for them. But we don’t do that. We go from one extreme to another.

HEFFNER: You know, I never had the opportunity to watch you, Judge Judy, in the real court, if I may call it that. I’ve watched you now. You’re tough.

SHEINDLIN: Practical.

HEFFNER: And I want to talk to the mayor, the judge now, and say, I see about you, you used the word “avuncular” before.

KOCH: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I see about you something even more gentle and kinder. Has this experience brought it out?

KOCH: Well, you know, people have said to me the following, they say: “Why is it that your personality is different on your radio show where you are tough as nails and you say to people, “You haven’t educated me. Goodbye.” Or, “I don’t want to hear anymore of this.” And in the courtroom I’m more avuncular. Well, you are dealing in one case with, you know, esoteric matters, where a guy or a woman has nothing to do, so they call you up at 11 o’clock in the morning. In a trial, and these are real people who have real cases, these are not actors who come before Judy and myself. We’ve never heard their testimony. When I go out on the bench it’s the first time, with the exception of about five minutes before trial I get a precis of their complaint. And sometimes it doesn’t even match what they testify to. So, when you’re dealing with people who have real problems, you have to have a different attitude. At least I see that. On occasion, I remember, especially when you have problems involving family (and you have an enormous number of them), I try to bring some of them together. I mean, when it’s clear to me that there is basic love and understanding which somehow or other has been torn apart, at some point I may say, “Do you really want to go on with this, or wouldn’t you like to settle this? Why don’t you turn over what she says you’re holding. Do you love her?” And I remember, in this case it was an uncle saying, “I love her.” And I turned to the young woman who was about 17 and she wanted her belongings. And she had plenty of problems. Living away on her own. And I said, “Do you love your uncle?” She said, “I do.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you go over and give him a big hug and a kiss? I mean, he doesn’t have to do that for you. You.” And she said, “Okay.” And over she went. And it was very touching. It was very real. It wasn’t staged. And for me, I may have caused a change in the lifespan of two people who otherwise would have been torn asunder.

HEFFNER: Judy, you think, give him a few more months or another year or so on the bench and he’ll…

SHEINDLIN: Well, you know, we have a control situation in doing this program. We are given ten cases a day or twelve cases a day that we have to try. I could do that snoozing given my training in the family court. And they’re also not problems that are pressing that, the life-and-death problems. Do I return this six-month-old to her mother because I think she really is rehabilitated and completed her drug program? Or is she going to truss up this baby and make Christmas turkey, and then I’m going to read about it tomorrow in the paper? Problem. Should I release this 15-year-old who was found with a gun, or am I going to read tomorrow that he went out and he blew away some store owner tomorrow and it’s going to be my fault because I paroled him? The cases that we have, and some of them involve families, and it’s nice to put together. What I’m suggesting is that there is a certain frustration that I had as a judge with people who came into court and didn’t tell the truth, and thought that they could get over on judges.

HEFFNER: Now, I heard you the other day saying, “Don’t lie to me.”

SHEINDLIN: Yeah, because they thought judges were stupid. So sometimes to say to them, I cleaned it up for television, and I’ll clean it up for here, I say, “You see ‘Stupid’ written on my forehead?” And, you know, after awhile in the family court I could tell when somebody was walking in the door whether they were using drugs, from their gait, from their eyes. I could tell when somebody’s looking in my eyes, whether their lip is twitching over here, whether they’re telling me a baloney story. You had to be able to do that, because you had to triage those cases quickly. So I developed a pace, and a frustration with people that weren’t telling me the truth. My sense is that maybe after a couple of years, he will find those people who are trying to put one over, and be more frustrated with them he is. Maybe not. He maybe a nicer person than I am. [Laughter] You know?

KOCH: I think that both approaches can be melded, and probably will with the passage of time. I can be as tough as anybody when it comes to someone who I believe has taken advantage of a young person or an old person, or has lied to me flagrantly in the courtroom. And I will lecture them, in my own style. You know, I don’t want to be anything other than what I am. And to change my personality in order to adopt to a show, in this case, that’s not for me. I do a lot of things, and everything I do I enjoy doing. Otherwise I don’t do it. I’ve reached that stage in life where I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.

SHEINDLIN: Isn’t that terrific? Just a minute. Isn’t that terrific? You know, somebody asked me about us. And I always, a little laid back about commenting for the mayor, but I said, “We have had careers…” — and certainly I don’t compare mine to his…

KOCH: Oh, sure. You have a wonderful career.

SHEINDLIN: But we have had careers that are the important parts of our lives. And really, you know, when we look back at what we would like to be remembered for, I’m sure he would like to be remembered for being the Mayor of the City of New York…

KOCH: Right. Absolutely.

SHEINDLIN: …and a great mayor. And I want to be remembered as being…

KOCH: A great judge, which you are and were.

SHEINDLIN: …a really great judge in the family court. This is a perk. And he’s absolutely right: you don’t change your personality, because that makes it work. You see his personality? That’s the way he is here. That’s the way he is in his program, as he’s running his courtroom. You see the way I am, unfortunately? [Laughter] That’s the way I am running my courtroom.

KOCH: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Nevermind the “unfortunately.” Let me ask you both a question.

KOCH: Even though it works, she’s…

HEFFNER: Of course it works.

Harold Rothwax…

SHEINDLIN: Ah.

KOCH: Oh, the great Harold Rothwax.

HEFFNER: …wrote a book. Justice, Guilty…

SHEINDLIN: Guilty: The Demise of the Criminal Justice System.

KOCH: Yes.

HEFFNER: What about the question of juries, and judges? And what would you both do about the jury system?

SHEINDLIN: Well, first of all, I read Harold’s book. And I can’t quote it chapter and verse, but he sort of looks at this 12-person verdict, and the unanimous verdict, and says, “It’s ridiculous. Who came up with that idea? Somebody snoozing woke up and said, ‘We have to have a 12-man jury, and it has to be unanimous.’ Ridiculous.” He also said, what Harold was saying in his book is something that every judge — and unfortunately he’s touched my passions — a trial is supposed to be the search for a truth; it’s not supposed to be gamesmanship. It’s not supposed to be who’s got the better lawyer, it’s not supposed to be who can uncover the most evidence, it’s not supposed to be whether your judge likes you or not. It’s not supposed to be the ethnicity of your jury. It’s supposed to be a search for the truth. And unfortunately, over the past 20 years, it has become a game. And Harold Rothwax, in his book, said, “I’m going to give you certain suggestions to take the gamesmanship out of this search for the truth so at the end of a very expensive trial we can stand up and say, ‘The right thing happened, consistent with the Constitution.’” So I agreed with a lot of what he said.

KOCH: I agree with everything he said. And I many times went out to the movies with Harold and his wonderful wife Yona, who is very important to Harold, made him what he was, in a certain sense, gave him the security that he needed when he would come home at night. In any event, all the tough things that he wanted to do, I am for. I don’t believe in the Miranda Rule. Why should people who are smart and know that the cop says, “You don’t have to testify. In fact, we’ll get you a lawyer. And anything you say may be taken down and used against you.” Whereas some less-educated criminal doesn’t understand it, and he spills his guts. People like to confess. Why shouldn’t we have the confession? I would have them all on television tape so that you can’t have the allegation that they were tortured. I don’t understand why we can’t have court judge-mandated cases for misdemeanors where the punishment is less than six months. And most misdemeanors you don’t go to jail for more than six months, even if the law says a year. And so, if you did that, then you could try thousands of cases much more readily than today, if you didn’t have a jury. And I urged this when I was mayor. And the district attorney said, “Only if we can decide which cases you can apply that to.” And, of course, the legislature would never do that. They would, in my judgment, say, “We will reduce the punishment in a whole host of cases where we, from experience, know that they never get more than six months,” and then those cases could all be tried by a judge. And that’s what we should seek to do, but it’ll never happen.

HEFFNER: What do you mean it’ll never happen? Why do you feel so strongly?

KOCH: Well, it’s so ingrained. You know. The DAs want to control the courtroom. The legislators, particularly when it is a Democratic-dominated assembly, as we have in New York, is far more interested in the rights of the criminals than the Republican Senate, which is, we have a split legislature here. And they could make out their case and say, “Well, the government is outrageous, and it’s done terrible things.” And it has. But, nevertheless, I believe that the rights of society are paramount. And that you have to do what has to be done to protect that society without shunning the defendant and the ultimate criminal, and we’re not doing that. As Judy said, it’s evolved into gamesmanship. How do you avoid sending someone who really belongs in jail from going there if you’re the defendant’s counsel?

HEFFNER: Twenty seconds.

SHEINDLIN: Twenty seconds. He’s very kind. I’m not so kind. Shelly Silver has had legislation for the last decade to protect citizens of New York from marauding gangs of juveniles, to protect them by putting them away for longer, for making the crimes more serious. And it’s been a battle every single year to have him even address it. And the only time he addresses it, I think, is when he’s up for election. One thing we’ve lost sight of is: elected representatives really represent the will of the people. Once they stop representing the will of the people, they no longer represent us. So if the people react, they’ll get what they want.

HEFFNER: You know what “Cut” means?

SHEINDLIN: Yes.

KOCH: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Judges, thank you so much for being with me today.

SHEINDLIN: Thank you.

KOCH: Pleasure.

HEFFNER: Obviously we’ve got to come back and continue.

SHEINDLIN: Sure.

KOCH: Sure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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