In 1982, Sheindlin (then a prosecutor in the New York City Family Court) was appointed to the bench by Mayor Edward I. Koch. She became Supervising Judge of the Manhattan Court in 1986 and heard more than 20,000 cases. Her outspoken, no-nonsense jurisprudence and ‘open court’ policy became the subject of a Los Angeles Times profile in February 1993, caught the attention of 60 Minutes, and eventually led to her presiding over a courtroom in her own tv program, Judge Judy, which premiered in 1996. For over 25 years, Judge Judy has been watched by more than 1 in 3 Americans every year, and licensed in over 100 international territories. Beyond her own show, Judge Sheindlin, and her Queen Bee Productions company have created new television franchises including Hot Bench (one of the highest rated programs in daytime television). For her TV career she has won several Daytime Emmy® Awards, been Honoured with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and been inducted into the prestigious Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. She has also been feted with an Emmy® Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Judge Sheindlin is a prominent philanthropist, having given significant gifts to the University of Southern California, and most recently, to her alma mater, New York Law School. At NYLS, the Judge Judy Sheindlin Honors Program was established to support women in the legal profession. Additionally, along with her daughter, Nicole Sheindlin, she founded “Her Honor Mentoring,” an initiative that combines the power of youth and wisdom, mentoring hundreds of young women.
Currently, she is the presiding judge on Judy Justice, on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free streaming service, available both in the United States and the UK. New episodes are seen weekdays.
In this interview, I speak to Judge Sheindlin on the concept of justice, on humanity, conflict, success and legacy.
Q: What does justice mean to you?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: The question of what justice means depends on the audience witnessing the process. It could be the litigants, or the people watching courtroom television (for whom it may be entertainment). When we talk about the litigants, there’s rarely grey areas in a case, it’s black or white. There is a degree of laziness and political correctness which has crept into the justice system. Many judges are appointed not elected. They don’t want to offend. Instead of making a decision, they ‘cut the baby in half’ and everyone is left being a little bit miserable. I don’t like to cut the baby in half and while I can certainly see more grey areas in the world, my job as a judge is to say, ‘you’re right, and you’re wrong…’ I think people get frustrated by what they see as a lack of justice in this country, and sometimes watching my show gives them the opportunity to see justice in action.
So, if you’re a litigant – you want an answer – and the public need to know that whether you’re in small claims court, civil court or criminal court (where actual freedom is at stake) that the victim can been assured justice through the application of a punishment, incarceration or penalty. People want to see a just outcome.
Q: How important is the human connection between a judge, and those in the courtroom?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: When I was a prosecutor in the family court, there was a judge who was a very smart man, and who didn’t want to offend anyone. His mission was to show everyone in the courtroom how smart he was, and often this led him to make a decision that nobody was really happy with. I was a prosecutor, and the young man he was sentencing was facing a period of detention in a juvenile facility. When he finished sentencing, he looked at this young man and said, ‘…this period in your life is going to have a very prophylactic effect.’ He was saying this to a 14-year-old street-kid from Manhattan, who turned to me and said, ‘what’s a prophylactic? Is it a condom?’ This kid didn’t know if they were going to throw him a party or throw him in jail. In that moment, I decided that if I ever got to be in that position, I would make sure that if I was going to send you to jail, that you would know that it was because you did a bad thing, and there should be no uncertainty in your mind of that. Another situation involved a female judge who certainly didn’t belong on the Family Court bench. She was not inclined to empathise with the kids that she was dealing with. She was a Harvard educated lawyer, came from a white-shoe law firm, and was sentencing a 15-year-old girl to detention. The girl started to cry as soon as she understood the sentence and the judge said to her, ‘…please stop crying, I know exactly how you feel, when I was 15 my parents sent me to Paris, and I didn’t want to go!’- what planet was this woman from? Honestly, you couldn’t make it up!
I sat in the family courts for 10 years before I became a judge there. I came to understand that even if you work hard, you can only change a small percentage of ingrained behaviour. You break a sweat, you do what you do, you make calls, you shout at people, you threaten people to do the right thing (not litigants, but agencies who service the court) … you must be prepared to do that in the family court. If not? Go to the surrogate court.
My role as a judge is to make sure that to the best of my ability, the right outcome happens in a case – and parties understand what the outcome is, and that my decision is not based on anything woke, or politically correct, but is based on the facts I see before me, and the people performing in the courtroom.
Q: How did you deal with lack of humanity you witnessed in the family courts?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: How did I deal with the lack of humanity I saw? Firstly, by taking six Tylenol a day! <laughs>
As each year passed during my time in the courts, my eyes were further opened to the awful things people can do to children. Cases involving the abuse of children is part of the role of a family court judge. I couldn’t imagine the kind of person that would take a cigarette and put it on a three-year-old child’s back because they wet the bed… I can’t imagine taking a baby and putting their hands and feet in boiling water because they soiled their pants… it was hard for me to imagine that such humans existed, and if truth be told, I don’t think that kind of human should be allowed to exist.
While there may be reasons for bad behaviour… perhaps upbringing… perhaps a history of childhood abuse and trauma… perhaps a lack of attention as a child… perhaps the wrong schooling…. The fact is that society cannot accept that as an excuse. Society must demand that you comport yourself within a framework of rules. Once those rules break, society breaks down.
Q: What did you learn about conflict resolution through your time as a judge?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: There is an implication in conflict resolution that sane people should be able to come together and make the right things happen for their family, community, city, state or camp. When you’re involved in conflict, you’re not sane. You may start out being sane, and in those early stages it’s certainly possible to mediate and arbitrate. Using those tools (arbitration and mediation) you often end up cutting the baby in half – you give a little, I give a little, you give a little more, I give a little more, and suddenly everyone is miserable. This process leads to a situation where even if there is a clear right and wrong answer, you have to give up certain things… how can that be the just route?
Let’s look at the greatest manifestation of conflict, war. If we look at the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, there is no question about who the aggressor is. Given the high stakes, diplomacy is essential, negotiations are essential… we’re talking about potential nuclear conflict, and that must be avoided at all costs. Even in this case, where there was clearly only one aggressor, the victim will likely have to give-up something that they really shouldn’t have to, for the sake of the greater good. In a case where there are potentially catastrophic consequences, it feels ‘okay’ to make that compromise, but in the Family Court where you are dealing with abuse and neglect… with children committing violent, terrible, criminal acts… there’s a right and wrong answer. When you attempt to mediate, you’re softening the noose, and when rules become softened, society can break.
It’s fair to say that life felt more secure 40 years ago. You felt safer in your home, on the streets, in school, you just felt safer. If people suggest that humanity is becoming less ‘human’ – it’s because we’ve allowed civilized conduct to deteriorate and that’s what I’ve fought against for my entire professional career and continue to fight against today.
There are many reasons people commit bad acts – and while it’s important to study those individuals to understand them and understand society, we can study those things out of harm’s way, in ways that don’t hurt anyone. The reasons however cannot be an excuse to forgive and to change rules. If we’re going to change the laws, we should only do so to make society safer.
Q: What does success mean to you?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: I’ve always tried to always do the right thing. I’ve said to my children, and grandchildren, that if you do the right thing – there’s no guarantee that the right thing will happen. That’s the way of the world. If you do the wrong thing however, you’ll face karma. If you do the wrong thing? At some point in your life, something bad is going to happen to you. Remember my words. It will happen because you did something wrong 20 years ago to a colleague, to a girlfriend, to a boyfriend, to someone. If you do wrong, something bad will happen to you. You will get caught. You will get brought to task. You will get punished.
If you did something wrong, and something bad then happens to you? You deserved it.
[Vikas: This also links to the weight of moral responsibility for actions too?]
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: I witnessed the death of my own mother over 40 years ago. She died very young and was an absolute angel. I adored her. She was a pure person, and as she was dying, she said to me, ‘I try to think of what I did in my life that made God so angry with me…’ she eventually she came up with some tiny thing and was convinced it was that. I said, ‘don’t be so ridiculous!’ In that moment, even someone as good and pure as my mother was wondering what she could have done to have angered whomever so much. I took that as a lesson to impart to my own kids and planted a seed with them – so they try and do the right thing, every day.
Q: How did philanthropy come into your life?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: Many years ago, when I first became a judge, I was on a tour of a town in Texas. The Sheriff was taking me around, showing me their new state of the art juvenile facility, and it was honestly really fabulous. They’d poured a lot of money into this facility and the kids who were sent there had access to computers, a swimming pool, basketball court, and clean, pleasant shared rooms. On the way back to the airport, we passed this decrepit looking building with grass growing out between the bricks, and no air conditioning. It was an elementary school. It illustrated the point that’s often made… it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil… nobody notices you when you’re trying to do the right thing.
Sixteen years ago, I started a mentoring program for first generation school kids who were trying to do the right thing. Nobody was paying attention to them. I wanted to make sure we helped them get the same support that middle-class educated parents gave to their kids… helping them get a summer job… helping them write their personal statement for college… all the things I had the luxury of in a middle-class family, and which many young women in particular weren’t able to get. They were swimming upstream. We now have young women who started out as mentees when they were 17 years old, who are coming back as mentors having graduated college and landing good jobs. That’s full circle. That’s legacy. I’ve now expanded that support to include the law school I went to. So many young women would really love to go to law school, but can’t afford that kind of financial burden. Many of them are burdened with school loans that they won’t be able to pay off until they’re ready to retire. The gift I’ve made will ensure that at least 10 young women every year will have the ability to go to law school, and not be burdened for doing so.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Judge Judith Sheindlin (Judge Judy)]: I’ve had a successful career as a prosecutor in the Family Court, as a judge in the Family Court, as a supervising judge, and was given the rare opportunity to be a judge on television. My television career went successfully, and after a quarter of a century, I’ve been able to move onto another fabulous opportunity successfully. (She is the presiding judge on Judy Justice, seen on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free streaming service both in the United States and now, the UK.) That’s my professional legacy, and I’m immensely proud of that.
More than that however, I have a family, a mate, children, and grandchildren. When we’re together over Thanksgiving, there were 22 of us at dinner every night for nine days. Fortunately for them, and for me, I wasn’t cooking. That’s part of my footprint, my legacy.
I think when people say my name, whether they like me or not, they’ll say that I always spoke the truth. It may not be everyone’s truth, but it was mine.
A trailblazing pioneer in the history of television, and voted one of the “100 Most-Trusted People In America,” Judge Judith Sheindlin’s JUDGE JUDY wrapped its historic 25th silver anniversary season in September 2021. Judge Sheindlin’s reach and popularity is far and wide as 1 in 3 Americans watch her program every year. Her program finished as the #1 show in first run syndication for 12 consecutive seasons.
Additionally, JUDGE JUDY continues to be a world-wide phenomenon and has been licensed in over 100 international territories including The United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Sweden. In November 2021, Judge Sheindlin debuted JUDY JUSTICE, a new courtroom series on IMDb TV, Amazon’s free streaming service. New episodes of the program are also available every weekday in the UK.
In a major multi-page feature, “Judge Judy is Still Judging You,” The New York Times Magazine declared: “For more than 20 years, Judith Sheindlin has dominated daytime ratings by making justice in a complicated world look easy.” The article captured Judge Sheindlin’s discernment of the human condition from her 50-plus year career in the law. “The guiding logic of ‘Judge Judy,’ is that Sheindlin fundamentally understands people and their intentions perhaps even better than they do.”
Beyond her own program, Judge Sheindlin and her Queen Bee Productions, has created new television franchises including HOT BENCH, featuring a three-judge panel which was the highest-rated new first-run syndicated program in its 2014-15 freshman season. For the last several seasons, it has consistently ranked as one of the highest rated programs in daytime television. In June 2020, HOT BENCH became the #2 program in daytime behind only JUDGE JUDY.
A vivid and enduring presence in millions of American homes (“Who doesn’t love Judge Judy?” asked former President Barack Obama), Judge Sheindlin has been a guest on “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “Dateline NBC,” “Larry King Live,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Late Show,” “The View,” “Ellen” and “Entertainment Tonight.”
Over the past two decades, Judge Sheindlin has won numerous accolades and awards from the legal, academic and media worlds, and she has sponsored worthy philanthropic initiatives.
The rise of Judge Judy is an only-in-America story that began in 1982 when Sheindlin, then a prosecutor in New York City’s Family Court, was appointed to the Family Court bench by Mayor Edward I. Koch. She became Supervising Judge of the Manhattan court in 1986 and heard more than 20,000 cases. During her years on the bench she earned a reputation for tough, no-nonsense jurisprudence, and established an “open court policy” which let the public and media view the family court process. Judge Sheindlin’s outspoken leadership became the subject of a Los Angeles Times profile in February 1993, and that caught the attention of “60 Minutes,” which led to a segment on the iconic broadcast. After her appearance, Sheindlin was approached about the possibility of presiding over a courtroom on her own TV show. JUDGE JUDY premiered in national syndication on September 16, 1996, and the rest is history.
Emmy® Awards and Other TV Honors
JUDGE JUDY, widely credited with reinventing–and reinvigorating—the American courtroom television genre, won Daytime Emmy® Awards in 2013, 2016 and 2017 for Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program. She was honored for her groundbreaking work with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, situated next to one of her idols, the late actor Sidney Poitier. She’s also received the Gracie Allen Tribute Award from American Women in Radio and Television for her contributions to the broadcasting industry, and the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award named after the late broadcasting pioneer. In 2012, Judge Sheindlin was inducted into the prestigious Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, for her contributions to the TV business and in 2019 was honored with an Emmy® Award for Lifetime Achievement from The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
The Book World
As her TV career began, Judge Sheindlin published her first book, “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining,” in 1995. The book showed how and why family court fails in its mission to repair shattered families, and stressed the importance of accountability for everyone in the process—from judges, attorneys and social workers down to parents and children themselves. Her second book, “Beauty Fades, Dumb is Forever,” a 1999 New York Times best-seller, challenged women to be the best they can be.
Judge Sheindlin has also penned children’s books, beginning with “Win or Lose By How You Choose” in 2000, followed by “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” the next year. Both were designed as tools to help parents communicate with their children and teach fundamental moral values. Judge Sheindlin’s next book for adults, “Keep It Simple, Stupid, You’re Smarter Than You Look,” another New York Times best-seller, shared her wisdom on solving everyday family squabbles. In 2013 she published “What Would Judy Say: A Grown-Up Guide to Living Together With Benefits,” the first in a series of books based on her website.
Television Appearances and Print Media Features
Judge Sheindlin has appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” served as a judge for the “Miss American Pageant” and was profiled on “CBS Sunday Morning.” She has also appeared on “Nightline,” “A&E’s Biography,” MSNBC’s “Headliners and Legends,” E! Entertainment’s “Celebrity Profile,” and Lifetime Televisions “Intimate Portrait.” In 2003, “60 Minutes II” interviewed Judge Sheindlin again, updating its original interview from a decade earlier. Later that year, VH1 named her one of the “200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons.”
Judge Sheindlin, who was profiled in a New York Times front-page story, “Others Fade but Judge Judy is Forever,” has also been the subject of major features chronicling her quarter century run in Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and New York Times Sunday Magazine. She has also been the subject of interviews in Forbes, Family Circle, People, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Parade, Good Housekeeping, TV Guide and Redbook. She has also been interviewed for the “Archives of American Television,” which offered an in-depth look at her career and life as a mother, wife and grandmother. Judge Sheindlin has been featured as one of the top celebrities in entertainment in Forbes’ “Celebrity 100” list multiple times.
Philanthropy, Honors and Awards
In 2017, the University of Southern California unveiled “The Sheindlin Forum” in Wallis Annenberg Hall at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The space, named in honor of Judge Sheindlin and her husband, Judge Jerry Sheindlin, provides a place to advance the intellectually rigorous, civil discourse needed for progress in our current times, now more than ever. The Forum is home to the USC Annenberg Debate Series, which offers the community an opportunity to express and host diverse, well-informed discussions of complex issues. Each year a “Sheindlin Debate Scholar” works with students to help program the events.
Judge Sheindlin was invited to speak at the Oxford Union, in Oxford, England in 2017 and Cambridge University, United Kingdom in 2019.
Over the years, Judge Sheindlin has received many other awards and distinguished honors. She is the recipient of the VP/Law Society Award from the University College of Dublin for her contributions to family law and legal academia. She has been honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award from New York Law School, the Woman of the 21st Century Award from The Women’s Guild at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and the Lifetime Achievement Award and a Presidential Medal from Hofstra University’s School of Law. Judge Sheindlin was included in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Power 100,” honoring the top 100 women in the entertainment business. She was also named International Spokesperson for North Shore Animal League America, to promote pet adoptions throughout the U.S. and the world. Judge Sheindlin has delivered commencement addresses at University at Albany, SUNY. Elizabethtown College, New York Law School and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Along with her daughter, Nicole Sheindlin, she founded “Her Honor Mentoring” an initiative that combines the power of youth and the wisdom of experience to inspire young women to reach their full potential. “Her Honor Mentoring” marked its 15th anniversary in 2021.
Born in Brooklyn, Judge Sheindlin attended college at the School of Government at American University in Washington D.C. After graduating she attended New York Law School, where she received her degree. She began practicing law in Manhattan in 1965, and holds honorary Doctor of Law degrees from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, New York Law School and University at Albany, SUNY.
Judge Sheindlin is married to Judge Jerry Sheindlin, a former Judge of the Supreme Court of New York. The second marriage for both, they have five children between them—Gregory, Jamie, Jonathan, Adam and Nicole—as well as 13 grandchildren.