The People's Judge

Some 7.5 million of them watch Joseph A. Wapner preside over small claims court on TV. INTERVIEW

WHEN Judge Joseph A. Wapner gets that exasperated look and starts scolding the litigants on ``The People's Court,'' is it for real, or does he embellish the whole scene a bit for the TV audience? ``There's no acting,'' insists the white-haired, green-eyed jurist who has evolved into something of a folk hero. ``We have no script, no rehearsals, no retakes. I'm strictly a judge. The way I act is the way I feel.''

Frequently, though, the way he feels is provoked - especially when the people appearing before him are unprepared or don't understand courtroom procedure.

``Sometimes it's really unbelievable,'' Judge Wapner said during a trip here to tape some shows for the fall season. ``They come in asking for relief with nothing to back it up. You wonder what they're thinking - where their common sense is.''

The half-hour, syndicated program, now heading into its ninth year, is watched every weekday by about 7.5 million people. And Wapner's name has become a household word - as witness that bit in the hit movie ``Rain Man,'' when Dustin Hoffman kept repeating it without further identification (``Uh-oh, 15 minutes to Judge Wapner!'').

Hoffman himself is such a big fan that he asked for a tape one time when he missed a segment. Many other celebrities in the worlds of entertainment and sports are among the show's followers (the Minnesota Twins reportedly wouldn't leave the clubhouse one day until a particularly fascinating case ended). And a national magazine reported that Justice Thurgood Marshall occasionally ``can be found in his chambers chuckling'' at the program.

BUT Wapner, who served 20 years on the bench before retiring in 1979 as presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, believes the program does more than entertain.

``To me the main part is educational,'' he says. ``We try to teach some basic law - very basic. ... It teaches [people] what they need by way of proof....

``I think they're learning.''

Reaction to the show in the legal community is mixed: ``I think it is a reasonably accurate representation of how a small claims court operates - and I'm favorably disposed to any such representation,'' says Sol Wachtler, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. ``People see how the system works, and they see a competent judge in action. All that is positive.''

``I don't think it does much to illuminate or create appreciation for the law,'' offers Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer who serves as dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. ``My sense is that education is not the purpose of the show. If it is a collateral effect, I think it is minimal.''

The cases in Wapner's court are real, drawn from complaints filed in various small claims courts in the Los Angeles area, and the people are the actual litigants.

The issues are the stuff of small-claims courts anywhere: disputes about animals (mostly dogs, cats, and exotic birds); squabbles involving allegedly botched paint jobs, hairdos, dry cleaning, and more. So many of them have unusual twists (example: a cat supposed to have been dyed blue to match its eyes came out pink) that it seems the show's researchers must be on the lookout for bizarre situations. Not so, says Wapner.

``I don't think it's the cases our researchers are interested in as much as the personalities,'' he says. ``They want a forceful advocate for his or her position, so two people are going to challenge each other. Basically, they're looking for conflict.''

``I don't like the word `bizarre,''' he adds. ``It's not for us to say `bizarre.' The litigants don't see them that way. ... If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: `It's not the money, it's the principle.' Otherwise, who would sue for $9, $2.48, 75 cents? Absurd? Not to them!''

In the 75-cent case, a man claimed that a can of beer he bought was flat. When the store owner wouldn't give him his money back or a new can, he spent $20 to file the suit, which Wapner decided in his favor.

ANOTHER case involved a man who became so enamored of a cashier that he gave her an engagement ring. She accepted it, but finally told him she was married and couldn't go out with him. He sued for the cost of the ring, but the woman's husband said he had thrown it out. Wapner awarded the plaintiff $1,500. ``I thought they took advantage of an admittedly naive person,'' he says. ``There was no basis for throwing it away.''

In a way, though, these cases also point up the biggest difference between ``The People's Court'' and the real world. Had the beer drinker won his case in a regular small-claims court, he would have recovered the costs plus 75 cents, while if he had lost he would have been out $20. But on ``The People's Court,'' everybody is playing with the house's money, so to speak: The contract that all parties sign, in addition to waiving their regular-court options, provides for each to be paid a minimum of $50. If Wapner rules for the defendant, the two split $500, while if he decides in favor of the plaintiff, the show pays damages.

So nobody can lose?

``I wouldn't say that,'' Wapner says. ``They can lose in ways other than monetarily. They can lose face. If the plaintiff owns a business and loses, it can hurt him over the years.

``And the nasty old judge who sits there has been known to bawl people out for doing things they shouldn't be doing - like cheating or lying. One thing I can't abide is a liar. If I ascertain that somebody is lying, I can get pretty tough.''

Away from the bench, the ``nasty old judge'' is quite a pleasant sort. He plays tennis regularly and lives graciously with Mickey, his wife of 43 years, in Bel Air, Calif. They have two sons, Frederick and David (a judge and a lawyer, respectively), and a daughter, Sarah, who works in child care.

In his younger days, Wapner briefly dated a high school classmate, Judy Turner, who later changed her name to Lana. Wapner also had acting ambitions, but his father talked him out of it. So after college and a hitch in the Army during World War II, he enrolled in law school.

Despite his famous on-air gruffness, the judge can be compassionate - as shown by what he calls his favorite of the 3,500-plus cases he has heard on the show. A 17-year-old girl was suing her grandmother, who had given her a hope chest but was now threatening to disown her and take it back. The girl was in court with her 18-year-old boyfriend, while her grandmother had brought her husband.

``I heard about five minutes of testimony, then took them to my chambers,'' he recalled. ``In a half hour they were all crying, hugging, and kissing - and the grandmother gave her the hope chest.''

This is the first time the show has left Los Angeles, making stops in Houston, Chicago, Washington, New York, Atlanta, and here to tape segments for the fall.

``It's fascinating to see the different types of people, how they act and react,'' Wapner says. ``The cases aren't that different, but the people are different.''

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