The oldest living judge tells all.
Before judges Judy and Joe Brown, before Divorce Court and Moral Court and Power of Attorney, there was just . . . Joe Wapner.
Twenty years ago last month, the producers of a fledgling legal series tapped the retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to preside over their “People’s Court,” and the rest, as they say, is television history. We recently approached the bench of TV’s ur-judge to hear his verdict on the entertainment genre he helped spawn. By the time we were dismissed, we’d also learned about his secret to obtaining a settlement, the famous case of Letterman v. Carson, his date with Lana Turner, and his tasty eggplant hors d’oeuvre. Now 81, Wapner no longer tapes new shows, but his second series, Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, airs in reruns on Animal Planet.
JD How did you happen to go from the Los Angeles Superior Court to the People’s Court?
JW A friend put me in touch with the producers, and I did a case for them. It involved an ex–football player, who became very agitated and started waving his fist. I yelled at him. I said, “You sit down, sir!” And he did. After that, they said I had the energy level they were looking for.
JD How do you feel about the current court shows?
JW I think a judge has to be in control—otherwise, you can’t really get at the truth. But there are ways to do that without being demeaning. I think a judge should have a sense of humor, but I don’t think he should be acerbic.
JD Justice is swift on your shows: opening statements, testimony, closing arguments, decision, all in under half an hour. Are there lessons that the rest of the legal system can learn from small-claims court?
JW Yes, probably. [Pause.] I had a thought on that, but it eluded me. I’m having a senior moment.
JD Let’s discuss . . .
JW I know what I wanted to talk about: the importance of settlement as an alternative dispute resolution. I had a case involving a year-and-a-half-old Chinese youngster—this was before The People’s Court, when I was on the regular bench—who was being represented by his guardian ad litem, who was his father. The kid had been in a playpen, and he’d been given a glass bottle to play with. The kid had chewed on the bottle and cut him self under the eye. The insurers for the bottling company offered $5,000 to settle. The father refused, and they kept negotiating, up to $22,500. The father still wouldn’t take the money, and finally I said, “If you don’t take the settlement, tomorrow when you come in here I’m going to remove you as the guardian and appoint a new one.” So he came in the next morning, and my clerk informed me that the parties had settled. I asked the father, “What changed your mind?” He said, “When we left the courtroom last night, we went to a Chinese restaurant. And when they gave out the fortune cookies, mine said, good settlement better than fat lawsuit. After that, every time I had a case that I was trying to settle, I’d give the parties one of those cookies.
JD Of all of the cases you’ve ever presided over, which was your favorite?
JW My all-time favorite was not on The People’s Court or on Animal Court. It was Johnny Carson being sued by David Letterman. This was in 1986, and Letterman had parked his old beat-up Chevrolet truck outside of Carson’s house. Carson had the truck towed away, and in the process, a headlight was broken. I got a call from Carson’s producers. They said they had this case, and they wanted to write a skit, and would I do it. I said no, I won’t do a skit, but if they want to be serious about this and let me play it straight, I’ll do it. Carson gave me his desk, and I tried the case in the studio. First thing that happens is, Letterman says, “Should we begin now?” And I say, “We’ll begin when I tell ya, Mr. Letterman.” Then Letterman brings me a box of steaks, and he says, “These are the finest steaks from Kansas City, Judge.” I just pushed them aside. I eventually ruled in favor of Letterman, and Carson had to pay him $24.95.
JD Is it true you once went on a date with Lana Turner?
JW We had a Coke at a neighborhood drugstore, the same one where she was supposedly discovered. It wound up that I didn’t have any money on me. She ended up paying. That was on a Monday; on Saturday night, we went to a dance. And that was the last time I saw her. She was gorgeous.
JD Now that you’re not taping new episodes of Animal Court, what are you up to?
JW Not a hell of a lot. I play tennis.
JW I play four times a week, and I play a good game of doubles, if I might say so myself.
JD I also understand that you make a mean eggplant hors d’oeuvre.
JW When my wife had back problems, I took over the cooking. I get a kick out of it. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I don’t make up poetry or anything like that, but cooking I can do. My eggplant hors d’oeuvre really is very, very good. My wife and I don’t eat much meat anymore, but I used to do a wonderful marinated leg of lamb.
JD Are you still stopped for autographs?
JW It’s funny—no one ever bothered me when I was presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. But yes, I still get stopped for autographs. Last February, I did a celebrity cruise with Princess Cruises. Over 300 people came to the first talk. People came up afterward, and they wanted their picture taken with me, and autographs and things like that. It was nice.
JD Anyone ask you to resolve a dispute?
JW No. Thank God.