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Punchin' Judy

TV's newest Oprah-beater is a tough-talking former Family Court judge from Brooklyn who likes to take the high moral ground. Is Judge Judy the anti-Springer?

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MONICA LAWYER GETS AX. VIAGRA MAN HIRES TOP LAWYER. (Paula Jones, meanwhile, soldiers on.) It’s a patho-litigious world out there, and now we have our very own legal mascot: Judge Judy.

An unlikely TV star at 55, Judith Sheindlin, née Judy Blum of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, is the tart-tongued, bouffant-headed fury whose show is now tied for No. 1 in the ratings with Oprah. A small woman with intense eyes and aggressive bone structure, Sheindlin, a former Family Court judge in New York City, tacks a grannyish lace collar onto her black robe (“A little white around the face is always good,” she tells me) but treats litigants with a bloodless, take-no-prisoners style.

“Sir, I think you are lying!” she’s been known to say, as she cuts through self-protective b.s. like a human polygraph. Or: “You might have been traumatized, madam, but you are not smart!” In the course of warning a man who is being sued by a woman he’d spit at for driving slowly: “I’m not finished with you yet!’’ Then, addressing the plaintiff: “I’m trying to figure out whether he has all his screws. Is he a nut? Someone dangerous? Or just a flake?’’

“Let me get this straight,” she cracked to a defendant still under the sartorial influence of Burt Reynolds in his Smokey and the Bandit period -- tinted aviator glasses, a cowboy shirt, and a mustache -- who had left his longtime live-in lover four weeks after she bought him a car. “You have the Camaro and the stereo. She has the Visa bill and fond memories of you?’’

Presiding recently over a breast-implant-gone-awry case, the judge discovered that the plaintiff didn’t have post-surgical photos, so she took her, a 38-year-old wife and mother of three, into chambers to inspect her bosom. The judge came out wild-eyed and said, “I’m jealous!” Given that this was the woman’s second go-round at breast enlargement, Judy found for the doctor and gave the woman a talk on the irrational search for the perfect breast: “Even, uneven -- at my age I’m just glad I got ‘em.”

As an extreme character -- the glare, the hair, the Borscht Belt delivery, the aphorisms -- she is so easy to parody that Saturday Night Live has done it three times. Judge Judy is an Estelle Getty figure on a tough-love bender; between her and radio’s Dr. Laura, the media have mean covered.

In the self-correcting world of television trends, for every anarchic Jerry Springer (one of the two fastest-growing syndicated daytime shows on television) there is a Judge Judy (the other fastest-growing syndicated daytime show) at the other end of the spectrum.

“My show is the antithesis of Jerry Springer,” she says. “Jerry Springer encourages people to show off their filthiest laundry, to misbehave. I scrupulously avoid doing that. I cut them off.” She signals borderline offenders and the long-winded alike by wagging her finger and emitting an odd “Bup-bup-bup-bup” that is no real threat to the “Mmmmmm-bop” boys, Hanson.

Now in its second year, Sheindlin’s show (“real people, real cases, real decisions,” says the Rod Serling-like announcer) is produced in Los Angeles, using mostly local small-claims-court matters having to do with car problems, the residue of road rage, and/or garden-apartment tenants gone quasi-postal. (The show pays all the litigants’ fines and fees.) These cases are far from the monumentally frustrating, serious, and painful ones Sheindlin dealt with in the family-court system, but she uses precisely the same supermoralist, scare-’em-into-submission banter: “Do you know how ugly a female drunk looks?’’ she says to one 21-year-old woman accused of knocking out the glass in her friend’s car window while “happy.’’ Judy the jurist gives a strutting, macho guy a lecture on birth control: “Making a baby is easy. Dogs make babies. . . . Being a parent is hard.’’

This theme -- the need to stop lying, to take responsibility, to do the right thing -- was also the driving force of her 1996 book, Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining. The best-seller grew out of an L.A. Times piece that positioned her as “one of the people who won’t give up the fight to help America,’’ and led to another admiring profile, on 60 Minutes. That in turn resulted in her leaving the Kafkaesque juvenile-justice system altogether to go where Wapner had gone before. “The pay is good. I get someone to patshke with my face so I look good. And they have a very good lens there, honey,’’ she tells me.

Two different half-hour Judge Judy episodes are broadcast back-to-back from 4 to 5 p.m. on Channel 2 in the New York market, and the shows have already beaten Oprah in the ratings. The show does 86 percent better for Channel 2 than its predecessor in the slot, Geraldo. Judge Judy also handily beats the latest incarnation of The People’s Court, now amiably presided over by the Honorable Edward I. Koch. “The truth is, we like one another, and she is far in the lead because of her style, which is in-your-face,” says Koch, who seems to be using his TV program to showcase his patience and nice-guy qualities (and who as mayor, as it happens, appointed both Sheindlin and her husband to the bench). Koch’s one-hour show is slower-paced than Judy’s half-hour, often covers only one case per program, and includes outside elements, such as online opinion surveys and person-in-the-street interviews. Judy never breaks the intense courtroom momentum (save occasionally to roll her eyes conspiratorially at bailiff Petri Hawkins-Byrd, a giant, muscle-bound guy who worked as an officer in the Brooklyn Family Court system).

Indeed, the small blunt one has reawakened an interest in courtroom television. So successful is her show that Worldvision, the Judge Judy syndicator, is using the same producers and staff to launch another courtroom show this fall: Judge Joe Brown. Brown grew up in South Central L.A. and, he says, “wants to help victims even the score.’’ Also coming this fall is Judge Mills Lane, from Rysher Entertainment. Lane is the Reno, Nevada, tough-guy judge-cum-boxing referee who officiated at the Tyson-Holyfield ear-biting match. Even Geraldo has left the ranks of daytime talkers for a nighttime cable show that combs legal issues and still clanks around the unresolved ghosts of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Fifteen years ago, at a post-liberated, newly fearful time in human sexuality, Dr. Ruth Westheimer could say “penis” and “condom” with impunity, because her elfin body and cartoony accent made safe-sex information nonthreatening. Judge Judy, another diminutive woman known by her first name, presides in an era (routine middle-school shootings; legal clouds over the White House) when we’re looking for ethics and morality in all the wrong places.

In Sheindlin’s courtroom, there’s no vacuum, and she’s in absolute control. Her brand of justice comes lightning-fast, like judicial Cheerios, sometimes two rulings in a 22-minute period. (How’s that for a culture starving for authority and closure?) From her large leather chair, Judy characterizes the actions of those who come before her with such pre-Phil Donahue terms as good, bad, normal, stupid, crazy, and dumb, which sound inflammatory given the extreme attempts by TV interviewers in recent times to appear nonjudgmental.

“If anything, I’ve cleaned up my language for TV,” she tells me, speaking from the country house in Putnam County that she shares, along with a midtown Manhattan apartment, with her husband, Judge Jerry. In what was a remarriage for each, the Judges Sheindlin collectively raised five children, Brady Bunch-style -- two of hers and three of his -- and now have three grandchildren. She commutes every two weeks to California to tape.

“You have to use language that people understand,’’ says Sheindlin. “I know lawyers who practice their Webster’s skills on litigants. There was a judge who was sentencing a 14-year-old child of poverty, putting him in jail, and he said, ‘This will have a prophylactic effect.’ So that entire message was lost on the kid. Good, bad, normal, right, wrong -- these are words people understand. P.C. doesn’t cut it.”


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