Once called "the most famous judge in America," Joseph Wapner presided for 12 years on "The People's Court" TV show, handing down more than 2,400
decisions in front of the cameras with what became a famous no-nonsense approach. Born in Los Angeles, Wapner attended public schools until entering the military in 1942. He served in the South Pacific for two and a half years, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. The day after his discharge, he entered law school at USC, and then practiced general law until he became a municipal judge in 1961. He retired from the bench after 20 years, worked in arbitration and then found his place on television. His first book was "A View From the Bench," and he has just completed his second, "The Secrets of Winning Small Claims Court." Written for the business owner who faces repeated small-claims cases, it's sold as an "e-book" and contains advice for plaintiffs and defendants.


Question: At what point in life did you know you wanted to be a judge?

Answer: My father was an attorney who always wanted to be a judge and didn't quite make it. I guess I wanted to accomplish what he didn't. And I really loved the law. I was a better judge than I was a lawyer.

Q: Is there a certain personality you need to be a judge?

A: You need a great deal of patience. I used to write on my yellow pad every day: "patience and restraint." You have to learn how to handle people. Knowing the law is a given, because you can always look it up.

Q: Did it bother you having to pass judgment on people?

A: Not for me. Some people think it's a burden, but I enjoyed it. It's part of my makeup I enjoy making decisions.

Q: But what is the satisfaction? Didn't you have to send people to prison?

A: They deserved it. When I was first appointed, Pat Brown said I should visit the prisons. So one summer, I took my wife and sons and we visited every prison. I attended a session in Vacaville, a program the prisoners conducted themselves called the Emotional Security Program. I noticed a prisoner there and said to the warden, "That man is very impressive."

Q: Then what happened?

A: He was getting out shortly. He was a drug addict. When I got back to court, I had a hearing that sounded familiar. It turns out I had sentenced him to Vacaville. He said, "I'm getting out now, and I need a job." I called an ex-fraternity brother who gave him a job in a shipping department. After a year he was the head of the shipping department. When he got married, I performed the wedding at my house. I still hear from him occasionally. So I had some luck.

Q: What was the craziest case you ever heard?

A: A man took his television set for repair. He went to pick it up, and the repairman had lost the set. The man sued for the value of the set. The owner of the repair shop dreamed about the man. In his sleep he threw a roundhouse punch and knocked out his own tooth. He countersued for the value of the tooth. It was stupid, but I didn't tell him that. I just said, "Your claim has no merit."

Q: What was your hardest case?

A: The hardest cases are when you have to determine who is telling the truth. You have to look at the circumstances. For example, I had a case where a man sued for a can of beer he bought for 75 cents. He said it was flat. He didn't have a receipt for the 75 cents, because he didn't think it was worth it. The owner of the store wouldn't give him another beer, so he sued.

Q: What was your decision?

A: I had to believe the guy had a can of flat beer, because who would bother to sue for 75 cents? But he was angry. So the credibility of witnesses is the most difficult part.

Q: What advice would you give to people considering a judicial career?

A: You have to be appointed by a governor in California. Not always simple. You can go the election route very difficult. You can say you want a judicial career, that doesn't mean it's easy to realize.

Q: So how should society select judges, election or appointment?

A: I don't like the election system. I believe in the independence of the judiciary. You can't make a decision based on what someone wants you to do. You make it based on the analysis of the facts and the law that applies.

Q: The courts have been accused of bias from both the political left and the political right. Do you believe there are a lot of activist judges in the system?

A: Not a lot, but that depends on your definition of activist. I just don't think the judiciary should be politicized.

Q: In your own case, getting an appointment from the governor, doesn't that require some political activism?

A: Sometimes. Depends on the governor.

Q: Don't you ever hear about a court decision that sounds crazy?

A: It's hard to make a judgment like that because you haven't heard the case. You're only reading the newspaper report, with the reporter's slant. That's not the way to handle it. That's why when I'm asked my opinion about a case in the news, I rarely give an opinion. I didn't hear the evidence or test the credibility of the parties. Sometimes when you look in a person's eye, you know whether they're lying or not. But if you don't see that, you shouldn't make a judgment.

Q: Did you ever want to sit on the Supreme Court?

A: No, but some of the Supreme Court justices watched "People's Court." I went to Washington and met them, and that's what they told me.

Q: What were the saddest cases you ever heard?

A: I disliked divorces the most. Too much emotion involved. Fighting over money, fighting over a dog or a cat, or who gets the jewelry it's too emotional. When it comes to alimony and child support, it's never enough. The judge is never right.

Q: Don't both sides always feel you committed an injustice?

A: No. I handled the Jack Kent Cooke divorce. I understand it's in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest settlement. They both walked away after eight days of talking to me. They settled the case. They both hugged me. He invited me and my wife to San Diego for the Super Bowl. She got married again and asked me to perform the wedding.

Q: What advice can business owners get from your book?

A: Preparation for court. Keep receipts. If you have a contract, it should be in writing. Oral contracts are enforceable, but they're more difficult to prove.

Q: Anything else?

A: It depends on the type of case, but if you have an automobile accident, for example, you should get three estimates. You should always make a demand letter, laying out your claim and what you want them to do. Ask them to pay the lowest estimate so they don't think you're trying to gouge them. And don't ask them to pay for damage from an accident a year earlier.

Q: The U.S. is the most litigious society in the world. Is that good or bad?

A: It's a privilege we grant people, a First Amendment right. Sometimes people go overboard. My motto is stay out of court whenever possible. Try to settle the matter.

Q: But if the other side won't settle?

A: If you go to a reputable lawyer and lay out the facts and he tells you that you have a claim, you sue. If he doesn't, you don't shop around for a lawyer that will tell you "yes."

Q: How did you get the gig at "People's Court"?

A: Ralph Edwards, the producer, was looking for someone to be the judge. He asked a friend of mine who said, "Judge Wapner just retired from the bench. He would be great for you." I called and talked to Ralph and co-producer Stu Billett. I talked to them on a Friday afternoon for three hours. Then Ralph said, "Will you do a case for me on Monday?" So I did the case, they liked it and the rest is history.

Q: Has the proliferation of court shows helped or hurt the real justice system?

A: Depends how it's handled. If it's handled real, true to the law and the profession, fine. But if it makes justice a joke, if it's not real, then it doesn't do us any good.

Q: How was your show "real"?

A: This is a compliment to the producers: Never once did they tell me how to handle a case. Never once. That's why when I see some of these other shows, I can't believe they follow the same procedure.

Q: Since your retirement from "People's Court," what have you done?

A: I was president of Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley for six years. It's now merged with the University of Judaism.

Joseph Wapner

Title: Author and former TV judge

Born: 1919; Los Angeles

Education: Hollywood High School; B.A.,
philosophy, LL.B., USC

Career Turning Point: 1961 appointment to Los Angeles Municipal Court by Gov. Pat Brown

Most Influential People: Law school
colleagues Jim Hastings and Gordon Wright;
Ralph Edwards and Stu Billett, producers of
"People's Court"

Personal: Married for 61 years; three children; lives in Century City

Hobbies: Tennis, bridge

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.