The judge who presided over The People’s Court
Joseph Wapner 1919–2017
Joseph Wapner was the original TV judge. As the star of the much-loved daytime show The People’s Court from 1981 to 1993, the former municipal judge settled disputes between reallife plaintiffs and defendants from California’s small-claims courts. The cases were never big legal issues: They involved disputes over missing pets, haircuts gone wrong, and encroaching fences. But viewers loved the fairness and firmness with which Wapner presided over his court. When a litigant told him, “I’m not through, Your Honor,” the judge replied, “Well, now you are.” The success of The People’s Court, regularly watched by 20 million viewers, inspired dozens of legal reality TV programs. “All the judges watched Judge Wapner,” said Judith Sheindlin, better known as TV’s Judge Judy. “All America at one point or another watched Judge Wapner.”
Born in Los Angeles, Wapner “initially wanted to be an actor—until a theater director at Hollywood High School said he had no talent,” said The Washington Post. He served in the Army for four years during World War II—receiving a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart—then studied law at the University of Southern California. After a decade in private practice, Wapner joined the Los Angeles Municipal Court and then the Los Angeles Superior Court. “His peers elected him presiding judge several times, giving him oversight of more than 200 judges.” Wapner retired from the bench in 1979, and The People’s Court debuted two years later, said The New York Times. The syndicated show made Wapner the most famous judge in America. A 1989 survey found that while two-thirds of Americans couldn’t name a single Supreme Court justice, 54 percent could identify Wapner.
He stepped down from The People’s Court in 1993, said The Hollywood Reporter, but returned as a guest judge in 2009 “in honor of his 90th birthday.” Although Wapner realized people watched his show as entertainment, he was proud to have made the legal system more understandable for ordinary Americans. “People think I’m kind and considerate, and that I listen and evaluate, and give each party a chance to talk,” he once said. “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing. That makes me happy.”