Show biz and the law

“Judge Judy” may not mean the end of our civilization.

That was the judgement of a panel of pop-culture-savvy lawyers at the Law School during Alumni Weekend who, believe it or not, agreed more than they disagreed about the depiction of law in popular culture.

“Law and Popular Culture,” one of 12 Classes Without Quizzes that weekend, attracted about 65 alums, most of them lawyers and judges.

The panel included best-selling writer of legal thrillers Lisa Scottoline (C’77,L’81), who credited her legal education with making her a fiction writer. She said the whole point of law school was “to take a set of facts, align them so they make sense,” and then put a spin on them. Her spin on “Judge Judy” and “Jerry Springer” was that they were two sides of the same coin — the need for society to see people slug it out and the need for people to see the slugfest lead to justice. “Jerry is the anti-Judy,” she said.

Court TV Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Henry Schleiff (C’70,L’73) cast “Judge Judy” in a darker light. “She is Jerry Springer in a robe,” said Schleiff, dressed in entertainment industry casual — black cotton crew over polo, collar out.

U.S. District Court Judge Norma Shapiro cast “Judge Judy” in a still darker light after Law School Dean Michael A. Fitts, serving as moderator, opened up the floor to questions from the audience. “In my view, ‘Judge Judy’ is an abomination,” she said.

Associate Professor of Law Peter H. Huang, an expert on popular culture and the law, defended fictional lawyering. “It’s decision-making. People vicariously live through these stories and ask, Would I make the same decisions?” he said.

Local criminal-defense lawyer Nicholas J. Nastasi (L’67), known for defending former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and former Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno, decried how media interest in high-profile cases affected what happened in the courtroom. He cited entertainment like “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” for making mob figures into celebrities. The shows “influence people in real life to behave like that,” he said.

But Schlieff’s view was that audiences were smart and knew the difference between fact and fiction. “The O.J. trial did more damage than any other ‘Judge Judy’ or fictional series has done,” he said.


Originally published on May 31, 2001