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The judges who host courtroom reality TV shows have usually been real judges.
Judge Judy (Judy Sheindlin) was a Manhattan family court judge. Judge Joe Brown presided in Shelby County, Tennessee, Criminal Court. Judge Marilyn Milian ("The People's Court") was a Florida circuit court judge.
The list of people who have presided over TV courts has grown long and includes a few former lawyers (like Jerry Springer and Faith Jenkins) who made the switch. And almost without exception, they are people with legitimate legal backgrounds.
Last November, however, ABC stepped sideways when it announced that its new entry into the courtroom reality-TV field would be hosted by a funny and popular TV personality, Steve Harvey, who has no legal experience whatsoever.
In fact, "Judge Steve Harvey"makes no claims to the contrary. Instead, ABC says, "Steve plays by his own rules, basing his courtroom on his own life experiences and some good old common sense."
Harvey is a talented performer best known as a standup comic and host of "Family Feud"for six years. He said in interviews that he had the idea of hosting a court show for at least 10 years and that ABC executives quickly embraced the idea when he brought it up during a Zoom meeting in 2020.
"It's a different kind of court — a court of common sense," Harvey says. "I have no law degree. I technically have no business being a judge."
So, does that mean Harvey and ABC are treading on thin legal ice here?
Probably not — because TV "reality courts" are not really courts.
Anyone who is familiar with courtroom reality TV will recognize the basic concept behind "Judge Steve Harvey." The shows in this category are called "arbitration-based reality court shows," and don't use actors or scripts or re-create scenarios. For the most part, the authenticity does seem genuine, and that is a big reason for the popularity of these shows.
But to call them "courts" is a stretch. These are arbitrations of the type that play out by the thousands every day in the U.S. as ways for people to settle differences without going to court. And arbitrators don't even need to be lawyers.
The producers of these shows typically scour the dockets of small-claims courts looking for disputes that might be good candidates for TV. (Cases involving personal relationships, like when an ex-wife is suing an ex-husband, rank high.) Others, like "Judge Judy," invite litigants to apply by filling out a form that asks for details about the case, including the court docket number.
The parties typically sign a contract that gives the "judge" — the arbitrator — the power to award money. This is the same as when people agree to arbitrate any dispute — they may not like the outcome, but they sign off to accept it.
When they receive an offer to appear on TV, many litigants understandably feel stage fright and a fear of looking stupid. But the shows offer inducements. One is that parties typically receive an appearance fee of between $100 and $300 and compensation for travel costs. Additionally, shows typically have their own funds to pay awards to the winning parties — which, like small claims courts, are usually capped at $5,000 — making it more likely that people who doubt their chances of success will participate.
"Judge Steve Harvey," however, appears to be upping the ante. The show's casting website states that litigants will be paid $1,000 for appearing on the show and could receive awards of up to $10,000 if Harvey rules in their favor.
The decisions of TV judges are legally binding, just like the decisions of arbitrators.
But what about Harvey, the funny guy with no hint of a legal background? Are his decisions binding?
The answer is: probably. The parties do sign a contract saying they will abide by the outcome. And they make a few bucks, meet a celebrity, and have a story they can tell their grandchildren.
Beyond that, though, ABC won't say conclusively how legally binding Harvey's decisions really are. They also seem to be careful about what they're calling it. It's a "comedy courtroom series," not reality court TV. It is entertainment first and foremost, and most reviewers of the recently concluded first season say that Mr. Harvey delivered. In fact, ABC recently announced that "Judge Steve Harvey"will return for a second season.
Not that Harvey hasn't faced criticism for some of his statements and antics following the series launch in January. In the series' second episode, Harvey laced into a defendant who refused to marry his partner of 20 years and help support their three children, telling the man, "You're the stupidest dude I ever met." ABC executives apparently weren't happy with the name-calling and suggested that Harvey tone things down a bit.
Then again, it's just entertainment. And besides, Harvey's not a real judge.
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The judges in courtroom reality TV shows have usually been real judges. But comedian/TV personality Steve Harvey, who is hosting the newest entry in the field, has no legal background whatsoever. Is that legal?
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