"My husband and I lived in a studio apartment in 1990 with a Murphy bed. We lived in a studio apartment that faced a brick wall. We had five kids, five kids in school, in college, in law school, in medical school. And that's where we lived. And we were, you know, pretty happy there. ...We had, of course, one bathroom, and ...I said if I ever made it, I was never going to say, 'Could you please hurry up?'"
There's no shortage of bathrooms now. "Nightline" toured the couple's Connecticut home -- a mansion complete with poolside palm trees, designer landscaping and her own personal beehive. Inside, there's a giant kitchen that seems better suited for photo shoots than dinner. The refrigerator was empty. Sheindlin laughs, she doesn't cook she admits.
Judy met her husband Jerry, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, when he was an attorney in New York. He also had a gig as a TV judge, presiding for two years over "The People's Court," though he admits he did not fare as well as his wife in the ratings.
"That's true, except... in Hartford, Connecticut, I beat her. No one talks about that," he said jokingly.
Supportive of his wife's success, Jerry travels to Hollywood, where "Judy Judy" is taped twice a month.
Behind the scenes at the show, whose slogan is "Real cases. Real people. Judge Judy," it's a mix of the real and the stage-managed. Petri Hawkins-Byrd, who plays Judge Judy's trusty bailiff, is a paid actor, but he got the job because he once was a real bailiff in Sheindlin's courtroom.
While the cases are real, the awards are paid out not from the loser's pocket, but from the production budget. The audience is also paid to attend.
Judge Judy has no patience with litigants she decides are lying to her or trying to shrink from their responsibilities. Is it exploitive?
"I don't feel like it's exploitation," said Randy Douthit, director and one of the show's executive producers. "They [the litigants] come here because they want their case heard by Judy. Everyone that comes in, whether they're a plaintiff or defendant, comes in here because they believe that they're right, believes that they are going to walk out winners."
But Judge Judy often talks to them like they're losers. A show rarely passes without someone being called an idiot, bum, or psychopath by the judge. Sheindlin said she doesn't think about the name-calling, or regret any of her comments from the bench. "I don't think about it," she said.
Sheindlin said she demands the same thing of the people on her show as she did of the people in her courtroom: a sense of responsibility.
"The criminal justice system, what they've done over the course of the years, is made excuses: 'Well, they're going to put them in a program. Well, we're gonna try probation.' Probation doesn't work. Programs generally don't work," she said.
The sure-footed judge said hearing thousands of cases in family court took a toll.
"The pathology was so overwhelming that there was really very little opportunity to change a family," said Sheindlin, who confesses she took out her frustrations at work by scrubbing her bathroom at night.