Thursday, October 9, 2003
Black Judges Represented on TV as Loud, Crass Jerks
By ROGER M. GRACE
“He looks like a judge.”
That was said of Lewis Stone, who portrayed Judge James K. Hardy from 1938-46 in the Andy Hardy movie series.
It was said, also, of Voltaire Perkins, the lawyer/actor who played the judge on the original, black-and-white version of television’s “Divorce Court,” which started in 1958.
What did it mean to “look like a judge” in those days?
It meant being a well-bred, gray-haired, male WASP. (“WASP” is an acronym, now out of vogue and probably undecipherable to the younger generation, standing for “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”)
Joseph A. Wapner, a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, went on the air in 1981 as the judge on “People’s Court,” and was said to “look like a judge,” evidencing that stereotypes had become less rigid. Wapner is a well-bred, gray-haired, white male who is Jewish.
Judges nowadays come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, of both genders, of many religious persuasions. That’s as it should be. In Lewis Stone’s day, no one would conceivably have observed that a diminutive, one-legged woman of partially Asian ancestry was someone who “looks like a judge.” Today, such a woman, Joyce Kennard, is, as I (and many others) see it, the outstanding member of our state’s Supreme Court.
And so, with blacks portraying four out of the seven “judges” on television today, it would seem, at first blush, that, in the words of the cigarette spiel, we’ve “come a long way, baby,” that there has been social progress.
Unfortunately, however, three of those four black TV judges are loud buffoons.
While it cannot be imagined that the producers of the respective syndicated shows conspired to portray black judges as boors, that’s the depiction you’ll find if you tune in the current version of “Divorce Court,” starring Mablean Ephriam, or “Judge Joe Brown,” or “Judge Mathis.”
The fourth black judge, Glenda Hatchett, formerly a member of the bench in Georgia and now star of “Judge Hatchett,” conducts herself in an appropriate manner. That distinguishes her from the other TV judges (now that the Animal Planet is no longer carrying re-runs of “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court.”) Her show is, however, contrived, with “litigants” being subjected to “reality checks” resembling “People Are Funny” stunts and with the dramatic opening of envelopes to reveal DNA test results.
While there is no longer a stereotypical concept of what a judge “looks like,” there is a common notion as to what it means to act “like a judge.” Ephriam, Brown and Mathis do not act in that manner.
Indeed, it’s a sure bet that any of these three TV judges, if a member of a California trial court, would be yanked off the bench by the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Sadly, the “reality” format of the shows is apt to create the conception that what is shown are faithful simulations, if not actual court proceedings. “Real cases, real people,” the announcer intones on “Judge Mathis.” His counterpart on “Divorce Court” describes the venue as one “where real couples deal with real people.” And, there’s this introduction: “Real cases—a passion for justice. Judge Joe Brown.”
The conduct of Ephriam, Brown and Mathis is demeaning to the image of the real judiciary—as is the offensive behavior of white stars of TV courtroom shows, such as “Judge Judy.” But when you have three blacks playing judges, each doing so without a trace of regard for judicial responsibility, it cannot do other than to spawn a false and damaging stereotypical notion as to how black judges conduct themselves.
“Judge Joe Brown” stars a UCLA Law School graduate who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and became a Tennessee judge. “Judge Mathis” is Greg Mathis, formerly a judge in Detroit. Both bellow at the parties and sling insults.
Both permit the free-wheeling spewing of allegations of sexual misconduct having no conceivable relevance to the small claims disputes being arbitrated.
While Brown can be abusive, he’s lax sometimes when it comes to keeping order in the court. During one session, four people—the plaintiff and a witness at one counsel table, the defendant and a witness at the other—were all hollering at each other, while Brown, having gotten off the bench, sat on the sidebar, with arms folded, enjoying the fray. In essence, a courtroom proceeding was depicted with the judge no longer presiding, having assumed the role of a spectator.
And then there’s Ephriam. She’s a local attorney— reputedly, an excellent one. But as a judge on a TV show striving for ratings, she engages in outrageous conduct, saying things no judge should even think of saying.
This discussion having veered from nostalgia to commentary, I’m going to shift it to my “Perspectives” column, where I’ll provide a run-down tomorrow on last Monday’s “Judge Mathis” Show, and will subsequently offer snippets from Ephriam’s program.
Next week: a look at a unique television “pre-enactment” of oral argument.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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