Lights! Camera! Justice!

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

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 Court and 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 Potter book 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 Justice number 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 real star.  

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.

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.

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.

"You've got about four more minutes, boys," Rizzotti chimes in.

Like everything else in Texas Justice, this phone conversation is unrehearsed "reality," carefully monitored beneath the microscope of the show's handlers. What you get on your TV is slightly finessed, helped along, trimmed, but what matters in the end is whether this is engaging television that distinguishes itself from an already crowded bench. That verdict will be left to the viewers.

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