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