Inside Judge Wapner's wallet

How the courtly pioneer of "The People's Court" made the big money.

By Ken Kurson
Published August 4, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Amid a sea of imitators -- some able, some ridiculous -- the courtly, gray-haired Judge Joseph A. Wapner invented and maintains the standard by which all television arbiters are rated. Before CourtTV and the current crop of yellers, the retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge held sway over a courtroom that was as dignified as it was entertaining. I watched at least half of the 7,000 or so cases he tried on "The People's Court," and Wapner was unfailingly fair, courteous and in control.

These days, the good judge is going to bat for -- what else -- a dot com. wants to be the reader-written daily newspaper of the Web. In a kind of journalism popularity contest, well-read essays on tons of subjects automatically migrate to better positioning on the site. Wapner's involvement is no stranger a fit than, say, Priceline and William Shatner, and the judge's son is pals with the founder of im-ur, so it makes some sense. Wapner also referees on "Judge Wapner's Animal Court" on the Animal Planet channel. We recently spoke to the judge about money and his excellent career.

Judge Wapner, one of my favorite cases from "The People's Court" was when after the trial, you spoke to some law students and one of them pointed out a logical error he thought you made. You said, 'That's a good point. I may have been wrong; I've been wrong before.'

That was at the University of Southern California, my alma mater -- we did a one-hour special. Well, sure, maybe I got it wrong. A judge is not a god or a king. He has the last word most of the time, but sometimes one makes mistakes. In the municipal small claims court in California, the defendant can appeal, but not the plaintiff.

So what's with im-ur? The best-read stories move up in prominence?

That's my understanding of it. It's going to be opinions expressed and answers to those opinions. And controversy. Asking questions and getting feedback. I'm not running it. I have to leave that to the professionals. If I were in court and they tried to tell me how to run my court, I'd tell them to go fly a kite. They're using me as a spokesperson for a site, but they're still running it.

You were in private practice before being appointed judge. Don't most judges do at least some time in the public sector first?

It depends on the governor. Pat Brown, who appointed me, wanted mostly people who had experience he thought was relevant. He was a very, very fine man, and a very fine governor, not just because he appointed me. An outstanding man. Former Gov. George Deukmejian, on the other hand, appointed an awful lot of prosecutors -- including my son Fred. He was appointed to the municipal court by Deukmejian, then ran without opposition to superior court. In fact, he returned all his unused funds to contributors.

Weren't you the original judge in the Manson trial?

No. But Rusty Burrell, my bailiff for all these years, was the bailiff in that case. [Burrell was also the bailiff in the Onion Field murder case and the Patty Hearst/SLA trial.] I was presiding judge over the entire court in Los Angeles County, but not THE judge of that case. The presiding judge is elected by fellow judges. He doesn't try cases, there's too much administrative work. I did that from 1969 through 1971.

Were you the sitting judge on any significant cases?

A case involving three defendants, in which each made implicating statements against the others. The defendants wanted the statements excluded or to try the cases separately. I knew that was probably correct, but it was still an unresolved area of law, so I suggested they just delete certain things from the statements and go ahead and try it. The defendants wouldn't have it and I was reversed on appeal. It's a famous case and the judge who reversed me said Judge Wapner had the prescience to know this needed to be settled.

Alan Dershowitz was asked if it was a shame that more people knew Judge Wapner than the chief justice of the United States, and he said that's because Wapner's a better judge.

Alan Dershowitz turned out to be a friend of mine. He was a weekend speaker at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute [a Jewish cultural center in Los Angeles]. I was president of that for six years.

Let's talk money. You've probably earned a bundle over the years. What'd you do with it?

I use two people to help invest it. My CPA, who was also a lawyer, Dick DeFranzo and Harold Friedman at PaineWebber. Most of my investments were in tax-free municipal bonds and Ginnie Mae -- very, very conservative stuff. To be honest with you, I got on the bench very early, just before I was 40, so I hadn't been making a lot of money. When I started doing well with television, I wanted to continue to invest very conservatively. I own two stocks, American Home Products (NYSE: AHP) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), and I don't own much of that.

There's a great Jewish joke about Pfizer, but I'm embarrassed to tell you.

I insist.

The goyish man comes home from work the day the FDA approves Viagra. His wife says, "buy Viagra, buy Viagra." The Jewish man comes home and his wife says, "buy Pfizer, buy Pfizer."

Good one.

So you must have made a fortune with "The People's Court" -- shows rarely run more than 10 years. Did you stick with the same advisers?

They're still with me. These people are really unique. They know their business and they know what I want. As for my earnings, I did make more, but I made it a policy never to discuss how much I make on television. It's none of anybody's business. Obviously, I made more than I did as a sitting judge. But how much more, you'll never know.

What do you think about the current crop of television judges?

I don't like to judge the other judges. Judges are supposed to have "judicial temperament." You have to have respect for the people who appear before you as you would have them respect you. When I see the judges act in a way that's improper, it bothers me. The public should not have that impression. You don't tell a litigant to shut up and sit down. You say, 'Sir, I will not tolerate that kind of conduct in my courtroom.' You don't want to take on the aura of the litigant or lawyer who's acting that way. But there are certain ways to talk to people. We're trained to act in a certain way.

But judges are human ...

Ballplayers are human too, but a lot of them were just fined and suspended for going into the Wrigley Field stands after the fans. Irrespective of whether they were right or wrong, they're trained not to do that.

Do you think the current shows copied your formula?

There's no question about it. Without bragging, it was a huge success. We were on for 12 years. The people who did "Judge Judy" were on "People's Court."

Why are so many of these cases really about money?

They're ALL about money. That's all small claims can do. Well, you can have reformation of a contract, but mostly they're about money. People say 'I'm only suing for the principle of the thing,' and I reply that I can't give you principle -- only money.

You're on Animal Planet now. It drives me crazy as an animal lover and pet owner that people with pets that have been harmed can only sue for what the pet would cost. What about emotional distress and stuff?

There's no such thing as sentimental value. That's unfortunate but that's what the law has evolved. Animals are viewed as personal property.

The thing I really enjoyed about watching you was that you seemed to honor your profession so much. You just seemed to really respect the duty of being a judge.

I loved being a judge. I liked being in control and making decisions. I enjoyed that and always wanted to be a judge. Those were the happiest days of my career. And "The People's Court" I really enjoyed. I only shot the cases one day a week -- 10 cases in one day and then was free to do whatever else I wanted to do.

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is editor of Author of "The Green Magazine Guide to Personal Finance: A No B.S. Book for Your Twenties and Thirties," Kurson has also written for Worth, Esquire, the New York Times and other publications.

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