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Andell is trying to decipher the message obscured in the folds of the teenager's T-shirt. The young defendant's casual look isn't unusual, since no one much dresses up for Andell's new reality-based TV show, Juvenile Justice -- no one except Andell, an authentic, robed judge whose relentless enthusiasm and incessant banter suggest a man who knows no fear of a television camera.
When the squirming teen resurfaces some days later without having returned to school, Andell's tanned features grow satisfyingly grim. "If he's not enrolled in a school by this afternoon," he warns the youth's mother, "he goes to jail. You too."
And with that, the teenager's 15 minutes of national television exposure are over. It's time for a commercial break, then on to the next segment of Juvenile Justice.
So what is Eric Andell, a top-ranked jurist and honored children's advocate, doing in the sometimes-tawdry world of syndicated television, on a show being brought to you soon by the same production company that gave the world Top Cops? Andell insists there's a noble, high-minded purpose to the venture: he envisions Juvenile Justice as a vehicle to enlighten Americans on one of their most pressing social problems.
It was Steve Herzberg -- a University of Wisconsin law professor and free-lance television producer -- who proposed the show to Andell in 1993, after meeting the Houston judge at a dinner. "I finally thought I had a forum to tell my story," says Andell, neatly summing his twin passions for activism and ego. "I personally think there's a misconception as to what goes on in juvenile court -- that nothing happens, or that kids are faceless, nameless beings that have no place in our society. Those who are haranguing about the juvenile court have never seen it in process."
Now they can. Starting January 23, Andell will dispense his verdicts and wisdom each weeknight at 6:30 on Channel 39 and on stations in 39 other markets across the country. On paper, the prospects for Juvenile Justice might seem unappetizing: 30 quick minutes of weeping parents, wayward offspring and a manic, confrontational judge who tells one truant claiming to be college-bound, "Where do you want to go, Oxford?... When I saw you, that's just what I said, Oxford." But the show does exert a certain fascination, and it's not just with Andell, a made-for-TV judge if there ever was one.
Contrary to the impression left by the off-the-cuff atmosphere of Juvenile Justice, Andell thoroughly researches the cases and crafts his sentences carefully. And far from calling the show lurid or unsympathetic, Andell's fiercest critics actually say it isn't sufficiently tough.
To some degree, they're right. No People's Court pantomime, Juvenile Justice is filmed live, with many attendant limitations. One of those stems from Andell's day job as a justice on the Houston-based state 1st Court of Appeals. Andell, who previously was a Harris County juvenile judge for seven years, must borrow other judges' dockets to hear two mornings of juvenile cases a week, expressly to film Juvenile Justice, and he must commute to Austin to do so.
He says the TV court time is strictly extracurricular from his full-time job as an appellate judge. Since appellate justices hear cases only one day a week, Andell, who is divorced and has two children off at college, says he can set his own hours; Juvenile Justice, he says, robs no time from his elected duties.
Another limitation is the kind of cases that can be meaningfully portrayed in 15-minute segments. "This show is made up of kids whose cases are (rescheduled) or stipulated -- that is, they say, 'Yes I did it,'" Andell explains. "The reason is that these are the cases that move very quickly."
And don't expect to find youthful defendants accused of capital murder or car-jackings, the kind of juvenile crimes that most appall the public, on Juvenile Justice. Those alleged perpetrators are usually "certified" to stand trial as adults. Instead, the youths who wind up on Juvenile Justice are a motley bunch of smalltimers: car-thieves, pot-smokers and illegal gun wielders. Every minor who appears on the show has given written consent to be filmed and shown, as have his or her family members and even the lawyers in the cases.
"Why would people consent to this? I've asked myself that," admits Andell. "We live in the age of Oprah Winfrey."
Unlike Oprah, though, Andell won't be getting rich off syndicated television. He says he earns nothing for his role, other than final edit rights over the program for himself and producer Herzberg.
The pilots for the show (which were filmed in Harris County) first aired for two weeks in August, and Juvenile Justice earned uncommonly good ratings in Houston, despite its original 11 p.m. viewing time here. The pilot episodes, and Andell, also received good notices from out-of-town critics. Still, not everyone in Andell's hometown loves Juvenile Justice. Lawyers at the Harris County District Attorney's office, which officially frowns on courtroom filming, have been instructed not to participate in the show. The freeze out, in fact, is what ultimately drove Juvenile Justice to Austin.