Television Judges and Judicial Legitimacy

In 2009, in the midst of an ongoing wave of court-based reality TV shows, Litton Entertainment introduced a show called “Street Court” featuring New York attorney Michael Mazzariello as “Judge Mazz.”  The premise of the show was that, rather than being confined to a studio mimicking the architecture of a courtroom, the streets themselves would be the courtroom.  Justice would come to the site of the alleged dispute and be dispensed on the spot.  “That’s my ruling, that’s it,” Judge Mazz would pronounce, before moving on to the next case or, more likely, a commercial break.  The vistas of the show were quintessential New York — city parks, fire escapes — and the show did well in the New York markets for a time.  But the format seems not to have worked well — it was cancelled after one season.

Why did the format of “Street Court” fail?  What can its failure tell us about perceptions of the courts and the role of court shows?

Taking a step back, let us first consider the nature of court shows.  Media scholar Derek Kompare, writing in the edited volume Beyond Prime Time, explains some of the appeal of court shows.  Quoting a television executive, he writes that “[the court show is] a simple, repeatable format.  It has conflict and resolution in a tight package, and if you have a central host that’s compelling and authentic, it all comes together into something that is pretty formulaic that works.”  The appeal of court shows lies in their ability to present an easily understood and simply concluding narrative: two people (and perhaps hangers-on) with a clear, uncomplicated dispute go before a putatively impartial third party, present their cases, some entertaining interrogation on the part of the judge occurs and, ultimately, an authoritative and final resolution is dispensed.

This is not inconsistent with theories of why people place faith in courts themselves.  Martin Shapiro’s Courts offers an account of the evolution of courts and judges that has striking similarities to that just offered about court shows.  Shapiro offers what he calls a triadic model of judicial operation.  He explains that this is the basic logic underlying the functioning of all courts.  He writes that “[c]utting quite across cultural lines, it appears that whenever two persons come into a conflict that they cannot themselves solve, one solution appealing to common sense is to call upon a third for assistance in achieving a resolution.”  As courts and the judicial office have evolved, by Shapiro’s account, they have dealt with the fundamental difficulty of two parties appealing to a third through rules and rituals that help to create the appearance of impartiality on behalf of the judge.  Because of this urge to appeal to a third party and subsequent efforts to ensure the independence of the adjudicator (from the interests of the parties, not necessarily from any interests) have resulted in what we now know as the modern office of judge and the modern courtroom.  American courts retain a great deal of legitimacy, despite the wide-spread perception that judges may not act impartially at all.  Indeed, it has been argued that this bifurcated view of the courts as being simultaneously unbiased legal actors and partisan political institutions is part of the way that courts function.

Court shows are symptomatic of this bifurcation in the American legal psyche.  While many of these shows use a form of arbitration where real disputes are brought before the television judge to be settled in a contractually designated way, some of these shows are partially or wholly scripted.  The idea that the television judges are impartial is a joke that we are all in on: their goal is to entertain and amuse.  While they may be capable of reaching what seems an equitable resolution in any dispute that comes before them, they are motivated primarily by generating ratings.  They are agents of a studio, who are agents of an entertainment corporation, who are the agents of stockholders and investors.  This is not far from the argument confronting Shapiro that “real” judges themselves agents of a third party — in the American case, at least, of government.  Television judges and “real” judges are each driven by some external concern, whether it be profits or rule of law, respectively.  Yet even the television judge is clothed in all the ritual elements of a “real” judge: the black robe and gavel, the wood-lined courtroom and the authoritative bailiff.  Underlying the relative simplicity of the format is something more fundamental, the American belief in the criminal justice system.  Shows “clothed in [the] immense power” of this ideal seem to have broad, if shallow, appeal.

This perhaps explains part of the reason that a show like Street Court failed.  For audiences to find these television judges convincing, they must transfer some of the gravitas associated with the courtroom and the judicial process to the televised proceedings.  Removed from the ritual trappings of justice, we simply have a berobed man dispensing pithy phrases and making decisions (“That’s my judgment, that’s it.”).  The more traditional television courtroom format may tap into something more fundamental about the way that courts work.  Even if we are all “in” on the joke about their impartiality, there is an appeal in the court show format, as long as it mimics the courtroom format as faithfully as possible.  These seemingly banal reality (or “reality”) tv shows seem to speak volumes about our faith in and skepticism toward the institution of the judiciary.