Honestly, without TV judges, what would we do at the Laundromat?
TV judges are among the paradoxes of our day -- presiding over actual court cases with the weight of the actual Constitution, and also becoming world-famous celebrities ("Judge Judy" is aired daily in Australia and the United Kingdom -- and they don't even have the same court system). TV judges aren't just legal eagles -- they're also expert showmen (and show-women) who can both practice the law and make up a few jabs and one-liners on the spot. Accompanied by their loyal bailiffs, the TV judge has to be principled, fair and totally fun to watch.
Most of these judges were appointed -- first by their municipal leaders, then by network execs. Here's your chance to cast your ballot for the Best TV Judge. They're a diverse bunch -- some are wittier than others, some fairer. The jury may now deliberate ...
Judge Joseph Wapner: Whither the days of Judge Wapner, the austere, ivory-haired man who sat in his leather chair and calmly listened to small claims disputes? Where has this man gone, this trailblazer of the TV circuit court? After spending a decade presiding over various cases (cases that, as a rule, could not lead to over $1,500 in damages), the "People's Court" star went on to Animal Planet, where he starred in "Judge Wapner's Animal Court." Wherever there was a mistreated dog, a reptile held in contempt or a houseful of too many cats, you could bet that Wapner would decide the fates of pets and pet-parents alike with the slam of his gavel. When it comes to backstories, Wapner has the most straightforward: A graduate of Hollywood High School, a lifelong Californian, Wapner ruled on 2,484 cases on "The People's Court" alone.
Judge Greg Mathis: It would be hard to find a more interesting TV personality than Judge Mathis, who grew up in the Detroit ghetto, used to shoot at police officers, sold heroin and who was allowed on probation only because an understanding judge knew his mother had colon cancer. It's been a long time since his first job at McDonald's, shortly after getting released from prison again, but, for a guy who's only 46 years old, Mathis has made up for his indiscretions: Politically active, the author of a memoir (Urban Miracle), Mathis has consistently been rated one of Detroit's finest judges -- not bad, considering he once failed the bar exam and then couldn't practice law because of his criminal record. Mathis isn't just the star of "Judge Mathis"; he's also the main character in the biographical stage-play, "Been There, Done That," that toured 22 cities and caused inspired weeping in every one of them.
Judge Judy: Beware the fierce words, the folksy catchphrases and the remorseless final verdicts of Judith Sheindlin. Nothing surprises her. Five-dollar words don't impress her. Plainspoken and sometimes vicious, Judge Judy has the most recognizable name in syndicated law and holds a record for being the highest-paid woman on television (take that, Oprah). She's the Dr. Phil of family court, bombarding liars and exaggerators with oddball catchphrases such as "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining" (which is, incidentally, the title of her best-selling book about the legal system). She may be crass, she may be mean, but Judge Judy makes quick, efficient rulings -- rulings unburdened by such silly things as lawyers or the judgment of an appeals court -- and she even has some spare time to chastise the guilty for being idiots and scumbags. Judge Judy seems born for her real-life role: Married three times, her current husband is Jerry Sheindlin, a veteran judge of "The People's Court." And who appointed her to the bench? Veteran "People's Court" judge Ed Koch.
Judge Joe Brown: His calm temperament, handsome veneer and noble mustache are all winning characteristics for Judge Brown -- but nothing is more interesting than his real-life story: He was the first African-American prosecutor in Memphis, Tenn., and, after he was sworn in as a judge, he presided over the third appeal of James Earl Ray (the man who was found guilty of assassinating Martin Luther King). His accomplishments are overshadowed by his TV show's quirks: It's technically not a real court of law, just an emotional dustbin for cases that didn't make petty court (how bad can it be when your case can't make petty court?). But he did get to hear a case that featured Coolio as a litigant. Martin Luther King ... Coolio ... That's quite the career, your honor.
Judge Mablean Ephriam: Sadly, Judge Ephriam has turned in her robes this season -- but after seven years presiding over "Divorce Court," you learn to cut your losses. Judge Ephriam is sassy and quick-witted, but she holds her courtroom on a tight leash -- an impressive feat, considering she never actually judged a case until she became the star of "Divorce Court." She spent 20 years as a trial attorney, and just as importantly, she's been divorced herself, so when she advises starry-eyed fiancees to "Look deep before you leap," the woman knows what she's talking about.
Judge Marilyn Milian: More intense than her "People's Court" predecessors, Judge Milian has the distinction of being the show's first woman judge and the first Latina to preside in an American court series. In a way, Milian has cornered the daytime market: She's appeared on "As the World Turns" and "The Tony Danza Show" (how's that for cachet?). Cuban by birth and bilingual, Milian was a Florida judge until she received the network's call -- in the middle of a first-degree murder trial. She also sports long, auburn hair and a broad, perfect smile (on upbeat days, that is), and she might be the only TV judge to be described interchangeably as either "very attractive" or "totally hot."
Robert Isenberg is a Pittsburgh-based writer, actor and comedian. He is co-creator of the Hodgepodge Society. He has never been to court -- yet.