''The People's Court'' and ''Judge Judy'' -- Viewers find in favor of lady justice

The verdict is in: Judge Judy rules. Former family court judge Judy Sheindlin’s show now nearly doubles the ratings for ex-New York City mayor Ed Koch’s revival of The People’s Court — and has even surged past heavyweights Rosie O’Donnell and Regis & Kathie Lee in the syndicated daytime arena. ”I just think it’s a testament to the good taste of the American viewing public,” proclaims Sheindlin.

The reason for her success is simple. Judge Judy is far superior to Court. Sheindlin has no time for the nickel-and-dime cases that Koch routinely hears (he spent 20 minutes on a woman who lost a tooth after biting into a soft pretzel). ”I hate what I call laundry-list cases: I loaned him —35.76 in June of 1996,” says Sheindlin. ”It’s not about taking your shirt to the cleaners and losing a button.” Instead, Judge Judy fills her docket with more emotionally charged disputes — bitter ex-fiancees, battling cousins, disgruntled bikini models.

When the short-tempered Sheindlin blows her top, she’s a one-woman Jerry Springer Show melee. ”You are one lying sucker!” she barked at a defendant. Even perpetual kvetch Koch seems a wallflower by contrast; he’s still too much the politician, letting litigants ramble on endlessly.

Sheindlin’s take-no-prisoners style has tapped into the public’s growing resentment of the legal system. In the post-O.J. world, people crave a jurist who lays down the law with common sense. ”I’m not doing anything differently from the way I did business for 25 years,” says Sheindlin, who, ironically, was appointed to the bench by Koch. ”You want to throw the bull, go someplace else.” Judge Judy is the anti-Oprah: She doesn’t empathize with anyone. I don’t know if I’d want her presiding over my case, but she makes for great, guilty-pleasure television.

In a certain sign she’s charged into the pop-culture consciousness, Judge Judy parodies have become a fixture on Saturday Night Live this season, with Cheri Oteri as the exaggeratedly feisty star (”Don’t give me rabbit poop and tell me that it’s chocolate!” she snapped, in a riff on the title of Sheindlin’s book Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining). ”I think it’s great,” says Sheindlin of the sketch. ”I told Cheri Oteri, ‘You’ve almost got it down — keep working on it!”’

The People’s Court is doing some tinkering of its own in the struggle to catch Judy. The show is undergoing a face-lift that started May 4. Gone is anchor Carol Martin, who gave the proceedings a pointless veneer of Court TV-like respectability. Harvey Levin, however, continues to do his moot interviews with mallgoers watching the cases (a typically irrelevant observation: ”He looked like he was making up his story”). ”They found that people wanted more cases and less in-between talk,” says Koch of the changes. ”Now I’m on for more of the program. I love it!”

Viewers may not share the love, especially when Hizzoner Koch is challenged by this fall’s spate of new syndicated courtroom shows (including one hosted by Tyson-Holyfield ref Mills Lane). Koch seems unconcerned about imitators: ”That’s the sincerest form of flattery.” Sheindlin is equally philosophical: ”I’ve got a husband I get a kick out of, grandkids I’m nuts about — I’ll be fine. If the competition beats me up, they beat me up!” So, she really thinks some Judy-come-lately could overrule her? As the judge herself often says, ”Baloney!” (Reported by Kristen Baldwin)

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