Friday, August 20, 2010

True Confessions: Why I love The People's Court

Marilyn Milian
Over  the past five years I've spent a lot of time loafing around the house waiting for surgery to heal or for some chunk of neck hardware to settle in, and one result is a secret, intense passion for the television show, The People's Court.

Featured in Rain Man and often referred to in the olden days simply as "Wapner," after the then-presiding judge, this semi-bogus show walks like a courtroom, quacks like a courtroom, but is actually a session of binding arbitration between plaintiffs and defendants who have agreed to appear on the show in exchange for an appearance fee and relief from actually paying any sort of judgment that's handed down. 

In our household, this show goes by the alternate title of My Boyfriend Owes Me a Thousand Dollars,  since this accurately summarizes what about a third of the cases are about. Couples in love fall invariably fall out of love, then use the court system to wrangle over broken cell phones, gifts that have morphed into loans, and bail paid out when the lover-turned-defendant got picked up for DWI. But there are also fender-bender cases, dog bites, home-improvement squabbles, and landlord-tenant disputes over why a security deposit is being withheld.

I like watching people argue, and when the argument is proceeding within the structure of the law, it's even more compelling. But I also like Marilyn Milian, the Latina judge who has been around since 2001. Unlike that other television benchmeister, Judge Judy, Milian cares about the law and is interested in explaining how it works; Judy Sheindlin scolds, vents, insults, and humiliates, and the spectacle is not edifying.

"See, here's how it works," says Milian. "You can make that decision, but it comes at a cost. You signed this contract. I didn't sign it--you did. And you can break it or ignore it or use it as a doily, but you have to understand there are consequences to those kinds of decisions. And you certainly aren't allowed to make money off that kind of decision."

It's fun to watch the body language of the losing parties as it slowly dawns on them that being hopping mad is not necessarily grounds for legal action. Their eyes narrow, their shoulders come up, and they cross their arms defensively over their often ample bosoms. There are rules, and the rules are real, and the rules are not working in their favor. This gives me an intense pleasure that I find very difficult to explain.

But fairness--and especially structured, evenhanded fairness--is important. Each new case seems to reinforce this essential concept, whether we're squabbling over a puppy, a broken windshield, or a slip-and-fall with injury resulting. And this fairness relies on proof--Milian reminds both plaintiffs and defendants that talk is cheap but real documentation, credible evidence, is what gets the job done. Often, when a plaintiff or defendant claims they have proof of something but forgot to bring it, she asks, "So, are you saving that for some other judge?"

I admit I'm a little bit ashamed of my liking for this slightly cheesy show, and I never would have gotten started on it if I hadn't spent so much time hanging around the house with nothing to do. But now I am well, and yet I still knock off work at four each day to watch Marilyn Milian do again what she did yesterday--demonstrate the essential beauty and logic of civil law. 

So now I've confessed and actually feel better for it. Just for the record, though, I have no appetite for soaps. I tried them, and it's no go--the people on soap operas never seem to have  anywhere they need to be in the middle of the day and they spend way too much time talking behind each other's backs. That's distasteful, and all the chatter leads to crisis after crisis but never any real conclusion--I'll take the gavel and the final ruling any day. 

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