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Ask Uncle John Anything: Order in the (Televised) Court!

October 6, 2015

Uncle John knows pretty much everything—and if he doesn’t, he heads his massive research library, or puts one of his many associates on the case. So go ahead: In the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. (And if we answer your question sometime, we’ll send you a free book!)

Are TV courtroom shows like Judge Judy or The People’s Court legally binding? How do they work?

Judge JudyMore often than not, the judges that star on daytime reality court shows are real judges, or at the very least, retired judges. Judge Judy Sheindlin was appointed to a New York criminal court in 1982, for instance, and Judge Wapner from The People’s Court was a California judge from 1959 to 1979, retiring two years before he moved to TV land.

The “trials” that air on TV aren’t really trials, but they are real “cases,” generally in small claims court. Producers for court shows seek out litigants who have cases pending in small claims courts primarily in California and New York. Why those states? Because that’s where the court shows tape episodes…and also because those massively populated states can benefit from court shows relieving them of some of its massive backlog of cases. Litigants benefit because 1) The TV show offers a quick and easy solution to their case, one way or the other, and 2) It’s neat to be on TV.

But while the small claims cases are presented like real courtroom trials, they’re actually examples of arbitration. By its definition, arbitration isn’t court – it’s a way to settle a dispute outside of the court system. Both parties in a case agree to present their side to an arbitrator, who examines evidence and makes a legally binding decision. That arbitrator doesn’t have to be a judge, but they usually are. Like on TV court shows, for instance.

The arbitrator’s decision on the televised case is legally binding, but not under the threat of jail time or a fine. It’s because the litigants sign a contract with the TV court show’s production company prior to appearing, and contracts are legally binding. At any rate, even the losing party gets an appearance fee, commensurate with the laws of TV production.

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Why are sworn depositions not allowed in these shows?

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