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It's a stiff market for court shows these days. Judge Mills Lane just got the standing three count, and rumors abound about the death sentence of such benchwarmers as Moral Court. Still, Fox Twentieth Television's PR person John R. Rizzotti is excited about the prospects of the latest installment of televised legal wrangling known as Texas Justice. "I think there's no judge on TV like Judge Larry Joe," he says. While no one can predict the success of a show like this, this company has a good track record with programs like Divorce Courtand Power of Attorney.
So far, the numbers look good. Producers claim they're first in four of the seven markets for their time slot (Atlanta; Memphis; Birmingham, Alabama; and Greensboro, North Carolina), and if they continue doing well, they hope to spread nationally. Ironically, it's Dallas, Austin and Houston where they need to improve. "Texans are hard," Rizzotti says. "Texans aren't really surprised to see other Texans on TV." They are protective of their new baby, and Rizzotti keeps tight reins on the media. Still, he hopes that by revealing the inner workings of the show he might help get the word out.
As I'm ushered backstage at KRIV-TV's studio, a young man with a headset is coaching a woman who is supposed to comment on the case that she's just witnessed. "He's Judge Larry Joe," he tells her. "Not the judge. Not Judge Larry. Judge Larry Joe." It's supposed to look like she's been plucked from the exiting crowd. However, the crowd is still back in the courtroom, receiving instructions on how to egress. They're supposed to follow the trail of tape on the floor, but not look down at it. On cue, people start to file out behind the interviewee, down the stairs, down the hall, and right back into the courtroom for the next case.
They ask me to button my shirt, which is uncivilly and rakishly open at the top. Then they seat me off to the side where, I assume, there's little chance of being picked up on camera. Befitting the show's name, the courtroom is decorated in a rustic Southwestern style; wood doors are located at the front and back of the room with secret panels that slide down when they need to poke a camera through. There's crap beneath everyone's chairs: bottles of water, sodas, books.
They pay each member $40 for a day of taping, which consists of about ten shows. Though not unusual for any TV show today, they're having trouble getting Texans to volunteer. My neighbor, Glanetta Thomas, found out about Texas Justice from her school bulletin board at TSU, where she's studying to be a paralegal. She's required to sit in on trials as part of her education; it's unclear whether this counts. "This is the first one I've been in without a lawyer," she says.
Peter Stauber, the rather bohemian-looking guy with a Harry Potterbook in the row in front of me, sits in television audiences as a hobby. It's a family tradition that began when his parents took him to The Price Is Right and children's programs. A portly, middle-aged woman in the audience sees this as her chance to break into show business.
The cases are culled from justice of the peace dockets. According to former guest Lupita Glass, who collected damages when a branch fell on her car, litigants are given several basic instructions beforehand, such as where to stand, to think carefully about what they're going to say, and to be "very forceful" when they speak.
Glass, a north Harris County resident, already had a case pending when she saw the Texas Justicenumber flash on the screen, and decided to give it a call out of curiosity. Next thing you know, the operator had talked her into airing her case before a voyeuristic public. "She told me that even if I was to win in small claims court in Humble that I was not guaranteed to be paid," she says. "But if I signed, if I won, I would get my money." Another deciding factor was that the defendant, Sandra Dodge, had a lawyer, which isn't allowed here.
This is the eighth taping today. You'd think the audience would be bored by now, but the room's abuzz with excitement. A woman behind me overheard the security guards backstage say the next case was going to be explosive. The rumor floating is that the two litigants are already squawking backstage. One woman apparently called the other a bitch, and everyone's expecting fireworks. "Last week there was a fight," says another woman behind me. Which is why, she thinks, they have so many cops on duty.
When the two litigants enter the courtroom, they look ready for a fight. Even without the revving soundtrack as they approach their separate podiums, I can feel the tension in the air. We're all asked to stand while we wait for the realstar.
The success of a show like Texas Justice depends partly on the fascination of the cases they pull, and on the people they put before the camera. Like all courtroom shows, this one lives or dies on the charisma of its judge, Larry Joe Doherty, or Judge Larry Joe to you and me.