The Peo­ple’s Court judge loved that he had ‘carte blanche’

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E -

LOS AN­GE­LES — Joseph Wap­ner, the re­tired Los An­ge­les judge who presided over “The Peo­ple’s Court” with steady force dur­ing the hey­day of the re­al­ity court­room show, died Sun­day at age 97.

Son David Wap­ner told The As­so­ci­ated Press that his fa­ther died at home in his sleep. Joseph Wap­ner was hos­pi­tal­ized a week ago with breath­ing prob­lems and had been un­der home hospice care.

“The Peo­ple’s Court,” on which Wap­ner de­cided real small-claims from 1981 to 1993, was one of the grand­dad­dies of to­day’s syn­di­cated re­al­ity shows. His af­fa­ble, no-non­sense ap­proach put “The Peo­ple’s Court” in the top five in syn­di­ca­tion at its peak.

Be­fore au­di­tion­ing for the show, Wap­ner had spent more than 20 years on the bench in Los An­ge­les, first in Mu­nic­i­pal Court and then in Su­pe­rior Court. At one time he was presiding judge of the Los An­ge­les Su­pe­rior Court, the largest court in the United States. He re­tired as judge in Novem­ber 1979, the day af­ter his 60th birth­day.

“Ev­ery­thing on the show is real,” Wap­ner told the AP in a 1986 in­ter­view. “There’s no script, no re­hearsal, no re­takes. Ev­ery­thing from be­gin­ning to end is like a real court­room, and I per­son­ally con­sider each case as a trial.”

“Some­times I don’t even de­lib­er­ate,” he added. “I just de­cide from the bench, it’s so ob­vi­ous. The beau­ti­ful part is that I have carte blanche.”

“The Peo­ple’s Court” cases were tried without lawyers by the rules of Small Claims Court, which has a dam­age limit of $1,500. The plain­tiff and de­fen­dant had to agree to have the case set­tled on the show and sign a bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion agree­ment; the show paid for the settlements.

In some met­ro­pol­i­tan coun­ties, the num­ber of small claims cases more than tripled dur­ing the 1980s; some cited Wap­ner as a cause.

By the time Wap­ner left the show, in 1993, in­ter­est in the genre had cooled, but tri­als such as the Simp­son trial and the court­room the­atrics of “Judge Judy” re­vived the TV­court craze start­ing in 1997.

Wap­ner re­turned to “The Peo­ple’s Court” show in 2000 to help cel­e­brate its 3,000th episode, judg­ing the case of a man su­ing over a piece of sports mem­o­ra­bilia. He also had a se­ries on the An­i­mal Planet ca­ble chan­nel called “Judge Wap­ner’s An­i­mal Court.”

Wap­ner was a Los An­ge­les na­tive and re­ceived a law de­gree from the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is sur­vived by his wife of 70 years, Mickey, and by two sons, both of whom joined the le­gal pro­fes­sion. A daugh­ter, Sarah, died in 2015.

Wap­ner said he was of­ten amazed at the lengths peo­ple would go to to prove a point: “A woman bought a birth­day cake for her daugh­ter for $9. She said it was mouldy, and the baker of­fered to re­fund only $4.50. She pick­eted the bak­ery for six hours, then filed the claim. I found against the baker for $9.”

Joseph Wap­ner died Sun­day.

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