July 19, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
If you’ve seen even one episode of the “Judge Judy” show on CBS and are waiting for your own day in small claims court, chances are good you’ve wondered, “is small claims court going to be like ‘Judge Judy?'”
Karen (names have been changed) certainly did. The Selma resident is a ministry student at Fresno-Pacific University, and sent “You and the Law” the following e-mail:
“Before my small claims trial against Sandra – my former college roommate – for not paying her share of our expenses, friends suggested that I watch the ‘Judge Judy’ television program for a good idea of what to expect, and how judges deal with the people who appear before them.”
“I followed their advice and watched the show for two weeks. She actually had several cases similar to mine, where roommates either damaged property belonging to the other or refused to pay their half of expenses for no valid reason.”
“I loved the show and the way she handled the irresponsible and dishonest people who appeared before her. There was a morally satisfying feeling, as she pointed out what they had done wrong and what they were legally obligated to do. If someone was a con or flake, then they wound up looking that way before millions of viewers, and I thought this was a terrific way of educating the public.”
But when she actually took her case to court, thinking “that our judges had the courage to tell it like it is, that the courtroom would be something like that, a tool for moral and legal education. I was so disappointed,” Karen wrote.
Tried to avoid going to court
“Sandra and I are doing a degree in Christian ministries, and the last thing I wanted was to sue her. If one truly practices our faith, then life should be all about doing what is morally, ethically and legally correct. Filing the small claims lawsuit was the only possible choice unless I wanted to just forget the whole thing. But to do that would be just as morally wrong, and a sign of cowardice, I believe,” Karen, 20, wrote.
“My school has a Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies with staff whose job it is to help roommates solve their problems and avoid going to court. I suggested that to Sandra but she would not even give me an answer.”
“When the case went to court, it wasn’t like Judge Judy at all. The judge listened to Sandra’s nonsensical excuses and yet said nothing, did not point out her irresponsible behavior, did nothing to educate her in anyway about living as a responsible adult. Yes, I won a judgment, but do not feel nearly that justice was at all accomplished that day.”
“Why isn’t small claims court more like Judge Judy? Why do our judges not tell people what they need to hear?” my reader asked.
A lot of people feel the same way
“Karen’s comments reflect the feelings of lots of people who have seen the Judge Judy’ show and then find something completely different – and are often very disappointed – when they go to court,” comments Don Fischer of Fresno. Fischer has been in a position to know that only too well.
He is a mediator for the Fresno County Superior Court and on the staff of the Fresno-Pacific Center for Peacekeeping and Conflict studies. “Judge Judy does something extremely well, which is why the show is so popular – that does not usually happen in real courtrooms,” he points out.
“She allows for story telling, truth and honesty to come out, and the parties and audience feel they have made things as right as possible at the show’s conclusion. What Karen wrote about good moral feelings viewers have in watching the show is correct. But that is television reality, and not generally courtroom reality.”
“Most litigants are first-time users of the court system. The only exposure they have may be television drama like Judge Judy courtroom shows. They mistakenly expect the same process when they get to court.”
“We always have to remember that, like it or not, judges deal with legal issues and try to avoid emotional issues. So, when you’re in court there is rarely a resolution of the emotional need to be heard. You might win a judgment, but that’s just a piece of paper from the court and collection of the judgment is something very different from feeling whole again.”
“The victory could easily be an empty one,” Fischer concludes.
Considering renting a place with a roommate? Hang in there – don’t sign a thing until you read next week’s advice from Fresno-Pacific mediators and roommate advisers. They’ll save you headaches – and money!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.