Pop Culture Supreme Court: TV Judges

The Pop Culture Supreme Court is reconvening after a lengthy prorogation to deliberate on an emergency case brought forward by CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera. A producer on the show approached our Chief Justice, Matthew Caverhill of culture kills, with a request for a ruling on judicial reality shows.

Case: Given the fact that syndicated reality programming grossly distorts the perception the average viewer has of the law and its practice, should there be a moratorium on the use of the words Judge and/or Court in the titles of these types of programs?

There has indeed been a proliferation of shows placing small-time litigants in front of cameras and court at the same time. A quick look through IMDB shows that 11 have aired since 2000, seven of them appearing since 2006. The judges can be coarse, pompous and condescending; the defendants shallow, petty, bitter and conniving. In other words, the perfect reality-show contestants.

If viewers are coming away from these shows with a distorted view of court proceedings and how the legal system works, they are also likely to believe that they can dance, audition for a singing career and survive on an island for 39 days. Judicial reality shows should shoulder no more blame for people's legal misconceptions than Grey's Anatomy does for perceptions of medical residents or Heroes for people's opinions of gene therapy.

In any case, legal reality shows are hardly a 21st century phenomenon. TV viewers in 1949 saw both Famous Jury Trials and Your Witness, while six court shows aired between 1957-1959, including Divorce Court and People’s Court of Small Claims. What goes around, comes around, it seems. In 1981, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner kick started the modern version by adjudicating actual cases in simulated courtroom settings.

In short, anyone who believes what they see in a reality-based court show might as well search out attorney Lionel Hutz at I Can't Believe It's A Law Firm before their next court date. Legal knowledge is the least of their worries. I rule against a moratorium.

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