Lights! Camera! Justice!

Real people, real cases, argued in front of a real judge. Pretty much.

When Judge Larry Joe enters, I immediately note a stark contrast between him and the won't-take-no-crap Judge Judy or the feisty Judge Mills Lane. Joe beams like he's having the time of his life when the two women start going at it. He might even be playfully egging them on. The case involves some sort of disagreement over an automobile, though it's difficult to sort through all the bickering. Doherty never cuts people off, choosing instead to suffocate them with a mixture of aw-shucks charisma and genteel Southern charm. His method for dealing with one woman's constant interjections is to have her removed from the courtroom, which doesn't seem to diminish his cheerful demeanor.

"He's a good ol' cowboy, and he's got enough personality to fill up" a dozen shows, Rizzotti says. In real life, Doherty specializes in legal malpractice as a senior partner of Doherty & Wagner, which is exactly what the producers wanted. Lawyers "thrive on egos, and they thrive on publicity, and Joe's no different," Rizzotti says. Joe's kinder style at least persuaded Glass to step in front of the camera. "If he was like Judge Judy, we never would have showed."

The judge finds that for all their mutual ire, the two women had both been hoodwinked by one's boyfriend. After the ruling, the banished lady is brought back in, and the director has the bailiff escort her out again for the camera. The bailiff doesn't get close enough to the podium, so they make him do it a third time to get the proper angle.

Judge Larry Joe: More counselor than hangman.
Twentieth Century Fox
Judge Larry Joe: More counselor than hangman.

When the defendant finally leaves, muttering, "That woman's got a big mouth" beneath her breath, everyone "discusses" the case as instructed by the stagehand. I take the opportunity to pose some questions to the people around me; one hushed conversation, I figure, looks as good as another through a camera lens. Rizzotti steps up, looking nervous. "We don't like you talking to the audience," he says. He's worried that he can't "control what they say" to me. They could say the show "sucks" or is "rigged," and the PR man wants only "positive stuff."

I ask about the reshooting of the bailiff scene, and Rizzotti nods, as if this question were expected. It's real people, he explains, but it's still television, and they have to get their shot. He seems to be hedging now about letting me see a couple of cases, but allows it.

The next case involves a dispute between lesbians over yet another automobile. The first woman starts to state her case, and right away, the other cuts her off. They're a good 15 seconds into the bickering when the director halts the shooting.

Apparently they're not getting any sound. The judge and litigants quietly wait as the stagehand checks everyone's mikes. When she has pinpointed the problem, we start again from the top. The woman states her case. The other cuts her off, and they're rolling again. I ask the lady next to me if this has happened before. She says no. The technical glitch appears to be an anomaly.

The instant the cameras stop rolling, the audience manager approaches. Rizzotti "would like you to leave," she says. "He's tired, and would like to go home."

I get a chance to talk on the phone with Judge Larry Joe about his bench style after the taping, under the listening ears of Rizzotti, who can occasionally be heard coughing in the background. In his 32 years of practicing law, Judge Larry Joe has learned that cases are often about hurt feelings, and that money is simply a way of expressing that anger. Judges find themselves playing the role of counselor, and he sees no benefit in becoming part of their anger.

"Oftentimes poor logic in thinking or the feeling that the individual is expressing can be pointed out just as easily with good humor," he says. "I don't think people who are angry listen to an angry judge. Not only do I try to listen to them when I'm ready to make a ruling, I want them to listen to me." Humans tend to store their truths emotionally as well as intellectually, he says, but unfortunately judges aren't often trained to deal with human issues.

Look at Judge Judy. People tune in to her show to watch her berate litigants for their stupidity and avarice. But in contrast to what most folks think of "Texas justice," which is practically interchangeable with "frontier justice," Judge Larry Joe plays the role of counselor, not oral hangman.

The judge will admit some differences between the show and an actual court. For one thing, Joe puts in a lot more preparation than a justice of the peace, because of the latter's crowded dockets. Before each case, Joe will review all of the pleadings along with a report compiled by the show's producers, and Xerox copies of the contracts and other evidence. "Like picking up a hot horseshoe," Joe says, inserting the obligatory Texas witticism, a JP may immediately know how to rule on a case, whereas Joe can take his time to question the litigants. The producers can communicate with Joe about some question or point they would like fleshed out for the audience, but other than that, Joe decides what the ruling's going to be, and how long to take before making a decision.

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