Judge Judy Rules No-Nonsense Court

Judy Sheindlin talks about tough-love approach, rise to fame and 2013 retirement

May 18, 2010— -- When Judge Judy's on the bench, the court comes to order. The no-nonsense television judge, who has ruled with an iron gavel for 15 years, is ratings gold. Out of the nine court shows on television, "Judge Judy" has ranked at No. 1 for 700 consecutive weeks.

"There's a reason that my program has been on for 15 years...that's because people really want their brethren to act socially responsible," said Judy Sheindlin, better known as Judge Judy. "They want the good guy to win, and they are looking for the bad guy to get whoopin', and they very rarely do."

It's also her tough-talking take-downs that have made "Judge Judy" so popular. Yet during a visit at her home Sheindlin displays a softer side, albeit one the viewers rarely see. Why is that?

"Who is interested in that? Who is interested in the warm and fuzzy? There's enough warm and fuzzy on television," she said. "There are 350 channels of warm and fuzzy...of how to be a better you, how to make the most out of a full figure, how to be happy in your own skin."

Is she referring to her main daytime competitor, Oprah?

"I don't think that Oprah's a competitor of mine," Sheindlin said. "Oprah is the queen of daytime. I think that she is a phenomenal business lady. I think that she had a tremendous vision. I think that her talents are boundless. I think she works 24/7. I have tremendous respect for her. All of those things. It's not for me, that's not for me. I like my life of balance."

Competitive or not, Sheindlin's take-no-prisoners style has found its own beefy audience in daytime TV. In fact, for the last seven weeks in a row she has beaten Oprah Winfrey in the ratings.

In truth, Sheindlin -- a 67-year-old grandmother -- thought she'd be retired by now. The television stardom -- and her reportedly $45 million annual income -- was something of a happy accident.

Judith Sheindlin had a 24-year legal career; 14 of those on the bench as a family court judge in New York City, where she earned a reputation for doling out justice along with sharp one-liners. But she also faced criticism for being too tough on minorities who appeared before her -- a charge she adamantly denies.

"I don't care if you're red, white, blue, chartreuse, polka dot or orange, you're supposed to do the right thing. That's it," Sheindlin said.

After an appearance on "60 Minutes" with Morley Safer in 1993, television executives saw a potential gold mine in Sheindlin's tough-love approach. Her life took a surprising turn: she went from a being a family court judge earning $90,000 a year to a television super-star. It wasn't part of her plan.

"The master plan, actually," for Sheindlin and her husband Jerry, she said, "was eventually to retire, and get as close to the water in Florida as we could."

Instead of a condo a few blocks from the beach, she got her own television show, and the couple got a new place, upgrading from a Manhattan studio apartment to the palatial Connecticut estate where they now live. They got that place in Florida by the beach, too. And a private plane to ferry them back and forth.

"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 'Judge Judy'

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.

It's About Responsibility

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.

"If I worked all day, and worked hard, and I was smart at what I did, and I was diligent at what I did; and still, despite my best effort, I didn't make a positive impact on the group of people that I saw that day, I would come home and I would go after my bathroom. Because then you were able to step back and stay you worked for an hour, but there is something with a result."

"What we've done with these kids who do egregious things is we don't let them know right from the start this kind of conduct is unacceptable," she added. "If you tell your child to be home at 11 and they come home at 12 and nothing happens, next time they're gonna come home at one, next time they'll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico!"

She said she practiced the same kind of tough-love approach with her own kids.

"I remember saying to my boys, when they went away to college, and to my grandson, who's graduating from college: 'If you get pulled over driving drunk, don't call me. Forget my name. I don't know who you're going to call. Sit in jail. Don't call me. Don't do the wrong thing.'"

Judge Judy: 'I Couldn't Be Simon Cowell'

But she says, her zingers are not the same as those dispensed by "American Idol's" Simon Cowell, who's also known for his blunt remarks and insults.

Sheindlin said there's no comparison between her behavior and Cowell's where "people who come and sing their heart out...are annihilated for sport."

"There are all kinds of ways of saying that to somebody who's doing something from their soul and trying to do their best. Not trying to get over on you, not trying to make a fool out of you or your show. There's a difference. There's a subtle difference," Sheindlin said. "I couldn't be Simon Cowell."

How, we wondered does her work on television stack up against her years of public service? While she says there is no real comparison, she does believe the program has positive results. Not just in setting standards of behavior, but also for other women.

"I appreciate what I do, which is daytime, syndicated television with a message...Women watch and say, 'I like watching you control your own space. It's motivated me to do better, to go back to college, to even try law school. My daughter's been watching you since she's ten; I love the fact that she's watching a strong woman who's in control.' All of those things are good, positive things."

It has been a long and successful run, but Sheindlin said she'll be ready to hang up her trademark robe when her contract expires in 2013. She'll be 69 years old.

"I think 2013 would be a nice time. It's nice to leave on top," she said. "I would consider this a great adventure. I think when it comes down to it … I know a lot of people who have a lot of things. If they don't have a great family, they've got zip."