The People's Court

The People's Court (Courtesy Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

The People's Court is an American arbitration-based reality court show presided over by retired Florida State Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian (her 15th season as the show's arbitrator by September 7, 2015). Milian, the show's longest-reigning arbiter, handles small claims disputes in a simulated courtroom set.

The People's Court is the first court show to use binding arbitration, introducing the format into the genre in 1981. The system has been duplicated by most of the show's successors in the judicial genre. Moreover, The People's Court is the first popular, long-running reality in the judicial genre. It was preceded only by a few short-lived realities in the genre; these short-lived predecessors were only loosely related to judicial proceedings, except for one: Parole (1959) took footage from real-life courtrooms holding legal proceedings. Prior to The People's Court, the vast majority of TV courtroom shows used actors, and recreated or fictional cases (as did radio before that). Among examples of these types of court shows include Famous Jury Trials and Your Witness.

The People's Court has had two incarnations. The show's first life was presided over solely by former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner. His tenure lasted from the show's debut on September 14, 1981, until May 17, 1993, when the show was cancelled due to low ratings. This left the show with a total of 2,484 half-hour episodes and 12 seasons. The show was taped in Los Angeles during its first life. After being cancelled, reruns aired in syndication until September 9, 1994, and on the USA Network from October 16, 1995, to June 6, 1997.

On September 8, 1997, after being out of production for four years, The People's Court was revived for a second life in first-run syndication as a 60-minute program. Former lawyer and Mayor of New York Ed Koch was chosen as arbiter, which he maintained for two seasons. By the 1999-2000 season, former New York State Supreme Court Judge Jerry Sheindlin (husband of Judy Sheindlin from Judge Judy) succeeded Koch. Sheindlin only lasted one and a half seasons and was replaced towards the end of the 2000-01 season. Since spring 2001, Marilyn Milian has been the judge.

With 32 seasons as of September 5, 2016, The People's Court ranks as the second-longest running courtroom series in history (behind Divorce Court). Its current production life entered its 20th season on September 5, 2016.


When John Masterson devised the original camera-in-court concept in 1975, he first pitched it to Monty Hall, the producer and host of the game show Let's Make a Deal, and his partner, producer-writer Stefan Hatos. They put a young associate, Stu Billett, in charge of selling it, but the networks were not interested. Billett later went out on his own and refined the concept into a show shot in a studio rather than a real courtroom. Small-claims court participants agreed to drop their court cases and accept binding arbitration in a simulated courtroom. The networks expressed interest, but still did not buy it; however, it did sell into the first-run syndication market. The series was executive produced by Ralph Edwards, who also created and hosted the documentary show This Is Your Life, and Stu Billett, who later went on to create Moral Court. John Masterson, whom many consider a pioneer and originator of "reality TV" also created Bride and Groom and Breakfast in Hollywood.

First Version (1981-93)

The People's Court pilot episode was taped on October 23, 1980, with a second pilot episode taped on January 13, 1981. It debuted in syndication on September 14, 1981.

The judge from the show's original 12 years (including the 1980 pilot), was Joseph Wapner. Rusty Burrell was his bailiff, Jack Harrell was the announcer, and Doug Llewelyn was the host and court reporter, who announced the matter of the dispute at the beginning of each trial. He also interviewed the plaintiff and the defendant after the court ruling, to gauge their responses to the verdict. Llewelyn often ended each episode with a jaunty "If you're in a dispute with another party and you can't seem to work things out, don't take the law into your own hands; you take 'em to court", which became something of a 1980s catchphrase. If a case ended with a verdict for the defendant, however, Llewelyn instead ended the episode by saying, "If someone files a lawsuit against you and yet you're convinced you've done nothing wrong, don't be intimidated. The best policy is to go to court and stand up for your rights".

The cases often had pun-related names, such as "The Case of the Overdone Underthings" and "A Head with a Beer on It".

Judge Wapner greeted his litigants by saying, "I know you've been sworn. I've read your complaint..."

Occasionally, if an episode wrapped up a few minutes early, Judge Wapner fielded questions from the courtroom observers, or the legal consultant explained the legal reasons behind Wapner's decisions.

The People's Court deals in small-claims matters. When the show premiered in 1981, litigants could not sue for more than US$1,500, which was the limit for small-claims court at the time in California. As the laws in California changed, so did this amount. By the end of the show's first life in 1993, litigants could sue for up to US$5,000, which is now the law in most states.

Researchers for the show examined small-claims filings in Southern California and approached the plaintiff and defendant in interesting cases. The producers offered to have Judge Wapner arbitrate the dispute if they would agree to dismiss their action and be bound by Judge Wapner's decision. Through this approach, the show could get real people with real cases. Though the show is decorated and run like a real courtroom, it is not a real court or part of any judicial system, but instead a form of binding arbitration.

The losing party does not actually need to pay the judgment, as such. Instead (as is stated in the disclaimer at the end of each show), both parties are paid from a fund (set up by Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Productions). This fund was based on the amount of the lawsuit claim, but an exact formula was not stated. The fund was to be first divided equally, then any monetary judgment ordered was subtracted from the loser's half (and presumably both halves in the case of cross judgments). Each litigant received at least what remained of their half in shows concluding with that disclaimer.

The disclaimer did not call this fund an "appearance fee", a term which appeared later in connection with The People's Court and other court shows. There may have been a later period when The People's Court paid the judgment, plus expenses and only a modest appearance fee to each litigant.


After 12 seasons on The People's Court, Wapner was not invited back to the court show in 1993. The producers of The People's Court wished to revamp the series, but did not notify Wapner of this decision. Wapner learned of the decision from his brother-in-law, who read it in The San Francisco Chronicle. Wapner has expressed holding great resentment and bitterness at the court show's producers for finding out this way, and additional resentment over being let go when, according to him, the show was doing well. However, although the show had a good run ratings-wise, the ratings had dropped to an all-time low at around the time The People's Court was cancelled.

Wapner stated that he was told years later that the producers did not want to hurt his feelings; however, he stated that this is exactly what the producers did. Wapner also stated that he was not notified when the producers decided to revamp the series, and that he held no opinions on The People's Court judges who succeeded him as he never watched the program. He did, however, note that the two People's Court judges who succeeded him, Ed Koch and Jerry Sheindlin, only lasted two seasons each, whereas he lasted 12 seasons. He also emphasized that judges need to be respectful of litigants.

Second version (1997-present)

On September 8, 1997, a new version of The People's Court debuted in first-run syndication as a 60-minute program. The series as a whole reached its 32nd season on September 5, 2016, with its 20th season in its current production cycle. By that point, the 1997 revival has already outlasted its original version, which ran 12 seasons. The show's second life has been headed by three judges since its debut.

Ed Koch (seasons one-two, 1997-99)

When the new People's Court premiered in 1997, former New York newscaster Carol Martin of WCBS-TV hosted from a studio with Harvey Levin, who was involved with the prior edition of the series as a legal consultant, serving as a co-host in the field taking questions and opinions from people at the Manhattan Mall, then returning to the studio at the end of the show for a wrap-up. Curt Chaplin was hired to serve as the show's announcer and to fill Doug Llwelyn's position as the court reporter, although with the addition of a host, his role was limited to interviewing the litigants after the conclusion of each case.

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch presided over the court from September 8, 1997, to June 25, 1999 (with reruns airing until September 10). Several months into the run, Martin departed the series and Levin became the series' sole host. The studio segments were done away with and Levin hosted the entire episodes from the viewing area, which eventually moved from the Manhattan Mall to the Times Square visitors' center. Since Levin is now based in Los Angeles with TMZ, the viewing area has moved to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, while production of The People's Court has moved to Connecticut. The opening outlines of the taped cases are shown to people in the outdoor viewing area on a monitor. Their responses are edited into the program.

Jerry Sheindlin (seasons three-four, 1999-March 2001)

Judge Jerry Sheindlin (husband of former New York Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin, the presiding judge over the court show Judge Judy) sat on the bench from September 13, 1999, to March 9, 2001, and ratings on the show lagged. The bailiff for both of these judges' tenures was Josephine Ann Longobardi.

Marilyn Milian era (since season four, 2001-present)

On March 12, 2001, late in The People's Courts fourth season, retired Florida State Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian replaced Sheindlin as presiding judge on the court show. Under Milian, People's Court ratings improved significantly. Milian is the first 'white Hispanic' judge to preside over a courtroom series. Milian is also the show's youngest and first female arbitrator. By the completion of the 16th season of The People's Court (2012-13), Milian had completed 12 and a half seasons presiding over the series, officially making her the longest reigning judge over the program"?outlasting Joseph Wapner's reign of 12 seasons. Now in its 20th revival season, Milian enters her 16th season presiding over the series. For the remainder of the 2000-01 season, Davey Jones took over the role as bailiff, replacing Longobardi. In September 2001, Jones was replaced by Douglas McIntosh, who remains to the present day.

In 2008, The People's Court, under Milian's reign, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award under a new Courtroom/Legal Show category created by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In 2009 and 2010, the show was nominated again for the Daytime Emmy Award under the same category, but did not win. On May 1, 2013, The People's Court had again been nominated for an Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program Daytime Emmy, but again did not win.

The People's Court finally won a Daytime Emmy in 2014 and again in 2015

While the show taped from New York City for the first 15 seasons of the revival, it began taping from Stamford, Connecticut, in the 16th season of its present installment (2012-13).

For the show's 20th season, Doug Llewelyn returned to the series for the first time since the end of the original series. He resumed his previous role as reporter, replacing Curt Chaplin, who remains in his announcer role. For his first show back, Judge Milian welcomed him "home" and handed him his suit jacket and microphone.

Series overview

Opening monologue

When the original People's Court first hit the air, the monologue was:

Later, the show opened with:

In the 1997 revival, the line was:

When Marilyn Milian replaced Sheindlin in 2001, the previous introduction was revised:

Later, Milian's introduction was revised:

Then the opening was changed to:

After a few months the soundbites of Judge Milian's voice were dropped from the opening, and the wording of Curt Chaplin's introduction was slightly changed:

In September 2009, the new opening was revealed when the new season premiered:

Litigant compensation

At the end of each show, the following disclaimer appears:

Both the plaintiff and the defendant have been paid from a fund for their appearance. The amount, if any, awarded in the case, is deducted from this fund, and the remainder is divided equally between both litigants. The amount of the fund is dependent on the size of the judgment.
No information is given as to what relation the amount of the fund bears to the size of the judgment, nor the amount of the fund if a verdict for the defense is rendered.

In a talk-show appearance, Judge Wapner gave a few more specifics as to how compensation was typically calculated. In his words, if the plaintiff won, the show would pay his/her judgment and give the defendant $50 for his time, whereas if the defendant won, the parties would "split $500".

In 1989, a litigant sued the producers, claiming, "I was only willing to appear because they guaranteed me $1,500. I never would have appeared on that show and made a fool out of myself for a chintzy $250." (In response, an associate producer said that before going on the show, participants are given a packet of information "where everything is clearly outlined to the nth degree.")

The New York Post reported on some of the details surrounding compensation for a lawsuit filed by Claudia Evart. "The show pays all damages awarded to defendants and plaintiffs, as well as a $250 appearance fee."

Production notes

The 1981-93 life of the show was initially taped at Golden West Broadcasters and, later, Metromedia in Los Angeles, before moving to The Production Group. In New York City, The People's Court first taped episodes at the NEP/Image studios in the former Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which was also the studio for the talk show Maury. In 1998, the show began taping at the MTI Studios on the 8th floor at 401 Fifth Avenue, where the courtroom received a makeover. In 2006, the MTI Studios were sold to NEP/Image. At the end credits of some episodes, the show is said to be taped at the NEP/Image studios. The former MTI studios are officially part of NEP Broadcasting's NEP Penn Studios.

As of 2012, the show has moved to the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford. The aired episodes are sometimes spliced together in a different order from which they are taped. This is why the judge's blouse color may change and why fewer courtroom observers may be seen during the second half of the show than during the first half. For the 2012 season, the show started broadcasting in widescreen standard definition.

The People's Court is "A Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Production" in association with Telepictures Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. The original series was distributed by Telepictures, and later Lorimar-Telepictures, which is now part of Warner Bros.

Theme music

The theme music, "The Big One (People's Court Theme)", was composed by Alan Stanley Tew. The uptempo theme music, with prominent piano theme and bongo drum rhythm, has been sampled by many artists, including Nelly. It has also been featured in several films and television shows, including the 1977 pornographic film Barbara Broadcast, the 1979 low-budget film "Malibu High", the BCTV current afairs show Webster!, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons, "Blue Harvest", the sixth-season premiere episode of Family Guy, the December 5, 2005, and December 21, 2009, editions of WWE Raw in Tampa, Florida, Malibu High, Boy Meets World, and Popular.


To date, The People's Court ranks second behind Judge Judy in the ratings for court shows. It had been third behind Judge Joe Brown, but inherited the second spot once Brown's program was cancelled.

British version

A British version of the show was produced by STV Productions (then known as "SMG TV Productions") to replace Trisha Goddard's talk show on ITV in 2005. The court reporter was Carol Smillie, the male judge was Jerome Lynch, and the female judge was Rhonda Anderson. The show was considered a failure and not renewed.

In popular culture

In 1986, Judge Wapner appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to preside over a dispute arbitration between David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Letterman sued after Carson illegally towed his car and broke the headlight. He was awarded $24.95. (Link to video (YouTube))

The original version of the show was referenced repeatedly in the 1988 film Rain Man. In the movie, autistic savant Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman) compulsively watches the show (which he refers to as simply "Wapner"), recites the entire opening monologue, and records the judgment amounts in a dedicated notebook. In one scene, his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) awkwardly convinces a stranger to let Raymond watch the show in her house, since he was about to have a panic attack for nearly missing an episode. Charlie later buys him a portable television so he will never miss an episode again. Hoffman came up with this idea for his character, because in real life, Hoffman was a huge fan of the original series.

In 1995, Judge Wapner appeared on the Fox network's science fiction show Sliders as himself in the parallel world version of this program where, as a Soviet judge, he sentences Rembrandt Brown to 15 years in the Alaskan gulag for being a subversive. The parody show's logo uses a faux Cyrillic "?" in place of the "R" in "Court".

The December 21, 2009 edition of WWE Raw in Tampa featured a parody skit called the "Little People's Court", in which Degeneration X members Triple H and Shawn Michaels had to appear before a mock makeshift court of dwarves to testify about their continued mistreating of Hornswoggle. The videos shown during the "trial" even used the litigant introduction music of the original People's Court theme.

In SpongeBob SquarePants, whenever a character has to go to court, the same opening music is played and the trial is conducted in a form similar to The People's Court.

In the Family Guy episode Blue Harvest, Chris Griffin (as Luke Skywalker) requests that John Williams plays the theme to the show.

On February 11, 2017, Saturday Night Live performed a parody of The People's Court in which President Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) takes his grievance to the show against three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for their decision to uphold a suspension of Executive Order 13769, claiming they were simply "being mean" to him. The skit was done after the real Trump had tweeted (in all caps) See you in court! in response to the decision. In the skit, Judge Milian (played by Cecily Strong) dismissed Trump's case and upheld the previous court's decision.

See also

  • Judge Mathis
  • Divorce Court
  • La Corte del Pueblo

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