Judge Judy

Safer Interviews Judge Judy

In a 60 Minutes classic, Correspondent Morley Safer revisits a woman he first met a decade ago. This story was last broadcast on April 30, 2003.

Her name is Judge Judith Sheindlin.

Back then, she was a 50-year-old, anonymous family court judge in New York City. She had neither fame nor fortune. As a lifetime civil servant, she was planning a modest retirement in Florida.

Now, a decade later, she's still a judge, but she's anything but anonymous. Her bench is no longer in family court, but on a Hollywood set. And she is now known simply as Judge Judy.

"When I first heard someone refer to me as Judge Judy, I said, 'I have a last name,'" remembers Sheindlin. "Judge Judy sounds like Buffalo Bob Smith or Clara Bell or something. Well, now I've come to accept it. That's to so many people who I am."

Judge Judy's show is syndicated all over the United States and in countries around the world by Paramount Television, a sister company to CBS.

Twice a month, she flies on her private jet from her home in New York to her studio in Los Angeles. There, she becomes a judicial referee as litigants from small claims courts around the country fight it out over everything from check forging to home-wrecking.

Fair to say, this is the most watched courtroom in America. And "Judge Nielsen", whose ratings decide who shall live and who shall go down television's memory lane, is very pleased. Judge Judy regularly ties or even trounces the Queen of Daytime, Oprah Winfrey.

Did Judge Judy ever think that she would go from a small, dingy family court to being a big time television star?

Never, she says. "You don't dream those dreams. I had a career that I loved. I really – dirty, dingy -- all true. But you know, you spent some time with me there. I really loved it."

Even 10 years ago, when Safer first interviewed her, Sheindlin was a 5'2" package of attitude, with a capital "A". Pity the young lawyer who dared to question this judge's judgment.

Judge Sheindlin: Well, are you suggesting, Ms. Guttierrez, that if I placed him on probation, he would never go visit his mother?

Guttierrez: No, Judge.

Judge Sheindlin: Are you suggesting that?

Guttierrez: No, Judge.

Judge Sheindlin: So that's a lot — so, let's be real.

To those who confronted her, she was the evil queen in a lace collar.

"If that's too hard for you, Sir, I guarantee you, I will put you someplace where you're going to be in bed at 9:00 and in school every day," Sheindlin says in court. "That's where the rest of your friends are."

The players in this melancholy theater were the judge, lawyers, caseworkers, addicted parents and castaway children.

"You make a fool of me again, Sir, by not doing what you're supposed to do, and I guarantee you, it will be a very sorry day," says Sheindlin to a boy in court. "Do we understand each other?"

Unlike criminal court, there was no jury. Those present were supposed to work out a solution that was supposed to be in the best interest of the child. It was never easy.

"This baby was born drug-addicted and if you keep using drugs, the other baby is going to be born drug-addicted," says Sheindlin to a parent in court. "I'm telling you right now, you're not going to take this baby home from the hospital because the commissioner is not going to let you."

In this courtroom, justice must not only be done and seen to be done, it must be seen to be done fast.

Judge Sheindlin: Could you please move on, Ms. Allen? I have about 20 other cases.

Allen: OK.

Judge Sheindlin: To do today, counselor.

Counselor Levy: Yes, Your Honor, I will.

Judge Sheindlin: Good!

Levy had only one more thing to say. It rhymes with "witch".

Sheindlin has had two husbands and raised five children, three of them following her into the law.

Given what she has to deal with every day - the degradation, the abuse, the pain, the suffering, what does it do to a judge?

"What keeps me going are those few cases, maybe 10 a year, and I do maybe 1,000 cases a year," says Sheindlin. "Maybe 10 of them, I can make a real positive difference. That keeps you going."

That interview took place 10 years ago, when Sheindlin was 50. Does she think she looks younger now?

"Well, two things I think," says Sheindlin. "First of all, the work is a lot easier. And I have a couple of new parts, which helps."

Who said there are no second acts in American life? This close to retirement, this civil servant recently signed a contract that will pay her a reported $100 million dollars, making her one of the highest paid women in the history of television, and most other things.

"I would have been happy with my pension as a family court judge," says Sheindlin.

And how much would that have been? About $35,000-$40,000 a year, she says.

"A little Social Security, a little bit of equity in an apartment, in a little apartment" she adds. "Go down to Florida, buy a two-bedroom condo and eat early birds. That was the idea."

But that idea came and went when a talent agent who saw her on 60 Minutes gave her a call one day.

"She said to me, 'Did you ever think of doing what you do on television?' The truth of the matter is I had fantasized, of course, about it."

Her fantasies have a habit of coming true as Larry Lyttle of Big Ticket Television quickly discovered.

"She came in my office and immediately took over the room. By the time she was seated, you could feel her personality," says Lyttle. "And she hadn't really said a lot of words other than hello."

But hello was enough for Lyttle to offer this 25-year veteran of Family Court, who'd never set foot in a television studio, her own show. A show he wanted to call "Hot Bench."

"The research on 'Hot Bench' was grotesque," remembers Lyttle, laughing. "I was insistent that was the right title, but ultimately, I acquiesced and 'Judge Judy' became, fortunately, the title."

If art imitates life, then television imitates television. There are now at least six other courtroom shows airing daily round the country.

"They're talk shows in drag," says Lyttle. "On the talk shows, people come in who know one another and they have a conflict. The host says 'OK, you've heard Larry, you've heard Morley, what do you think and tomorrow or whatever?' In our show, our talk show, the judge says, 'Okay, I've heard you Morley. I've heard you Larry. Shut up, Morley, you're an idiot. $5,000 Larry.' There's resolution."

While the litigants and the cases are real, the penalty is not. Damages awarded to the winner – up to $5,000 – come from the show itself. It's a no-lose situation.

"The people come and they say, 'Listen, I have this issue.' It's not usually, you know, whether we're going to war or not," says Sheindlin. "It's an issue that has violated the peace in their lives. The peace of their lives, and they want it resolved."

But are they also looking for what Andy Warhol called their 15 minutes of fame?

"Oh, absolutely," says Sheindlin. "Absolutely, and some of them think they're smarter. So, no matter how many times they'll watch it, they say, 'I can get one over her.'"

But in terms of the work, about the satisfaction that those 10 cases a year can really made a difference in someone's life, Sheindlin says there aren't many people who can say in their careers that they made a difference. Or even saved a life.

But she doesn't do that anymore.

"Now, on the flip side of that, there is my 'Judge Judy, my father loves you. He was in the hospital with a bypass for three weeks and he watched nothing else but your program.'"

When she re-negotiated her contract, a couple of Hollywood executives might have preferred a bypass to dealing with a judge who basically demanded, "Show me the money."

"In the industry that I'm in, which is syndication, that's the goldmine of television," says Sheindlin. "It's been interesting for me to learn the business aspect of it, to ensure that everybody was rewarded commensurately to their participation. Is that politically correct enough for you?"

When we first met, she was divorced from her second husband, Judge Jerry Sheindlin. The divorce only lasted one year.

"We spent a lot of time together, and I think we just both were ready to make some concessions," says Judge Judy. "And we both did."

"And she promised that she wouldn't curse at me anymore," adds her husband, laughing, although Judy denies ever making that promise.

Long after Hollywood approached Sheindlin, her husband got a call he couldn't refuse. So, after 16 years, he retired his New York State Supreme Court robes and put on makeup for "The People's Court." He was on the air for two years.

"I had a very good time. It was a very nice run," says Jerry Sheindlin.

But is he content now to be a house husband?

"It's a fantasy world. Really is. Non-stress," says Jerry Sheindlin. "We have a lot of homes and things that have to be taken care of."

"You don't have to tell them that," adds Judy.

They have homes in Florida, New York and Connecticut, where they got together recently with their five children and eight grandchildren. She's had breakfast, lunch and dinner. And now at 60, she's now enjoying what she calls the dessert of life.

So how much longer is she going to want to do it?

"I have a contract with the company to do the program through the 2006 season," says Sheindlin. "At that point, we will have produced this program for 10 years. Right now, I would be satisfied with a good 10-year run. I think that would really be phenomenal."

"It would be lovely if we could end on a high note and for me to say 10 years, and I still had people watching and I had a second career that was a blast," says Sheindlin. "My God, what an adventure it would have been. Why would you have any regrets at all?"