Oprah Winfrey gets a lot of credit for being the Queen of Daytime TV, but it's actually a brash 67-year-old grandmother who owns the afternoon airwaves.
More weeks than not, Judith Sheindlin, beloved or feared by much of America as television's Judge Judy, bests Winfrey in the Nielsen ratings. She may not have her own magazine or a cable channel in the works. She may not give away cars or questionable recommendations for books and sweat lodges. But for 14 years (and much longer if you count her pre-television career), Judge Judy has been winning audiences' hearts by not taking anyone's crap.
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This season so far, Judge Judy and The Oprah Winfrey Show have been neck-and-neck, drawing around 6.6 million viewers apiece per episode, although Sheindlin has won 11 of the last 14 weeks. Certainly there are others in daytime with broader platforms, but none beats the Judge in straight ratings. Ellen DeGeneres, the newest judge on American Idol, may be the most powerful woman on television these days, but her show pulls in only half the viewers as Sheindlin's on a daily basis. Judge Judy has been the top-rated courtroom show for the last 700 consecutive weeks.
Unlike Oprah, she's not going anywhere. The no-nonsense jurist, who made a reported $45 million last year, is committed to continuing her show at least through 2013.
"I still get a kick out of every case that I try—or, the interesting ones at least," Sheindlin says by phone from her second home in Naples, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Jerry. "Some of the cases are boring. They look like they're going to be boring from the start, and then they turn out to be. It's a crapshoot. But I'm still enjoying it."
In her trademark robe with its eyelet lace collar (very Ruth Bader Ginsburg circa 1993), Sheindlin is in every way the anti-Oprah, mercilessly dressing down her guests, eschewing any of the touchy-feely, group hand-holding that passes for so much of women's television programming these days. "You're an idiot and a scammer!" she yelled recently at one dumbstruck blond defendant, 30 seconds after the trial began. Oprah probably would've given this woman a hug.
What Judge Judy provides television viewers—and what most of us can't get anywhere else these days—is justice, plain and simple. In every trial, there is a good guy and a bad guy, and through her combined life experience and Freudian ability to read people, Judge Judy invariably knows who's who within moments of their arrival on set. The jerk gets called out and publicly upbraided before a live studio audience. The mensch gets his or her money back. All told, the entire process takes around five minutes.
"At my age, I've heard it all," she says. "I think that's the reason the program has legs and longevity. People like the fact that the right thing happens at the end of a case. There may be a small nucleus of people who are very verbal, who will PC you to death, but if I call someone an idiot, they're an idiot. I don't care if they're a boy or a girl or black or white or green or chartreuse."
Sheindlin was born and raised in Brooklyn, a "common sense girl" and the apple of her father Murray's eye. Young Judith Blum was never a joiner in school, never popular, never athletic, never part of any cliques. She has the same best friend today that she had at the age of 10. From her early teens, she knew she wanted to study the law. "I felt it in my bones that I would be a good lawyer," she says. "Maybe not great. I felt I didn't have the intellectual curiosity to be great."
If Sheindlin is anything, she's practical. After graduating early from high school, she enrolled in a combined undergraduate-law program at American University, earning a bachelor's degree and completing the first year of law school in four years, the only female student in the group. She finished her J.D. at New York Law School, where there were only five other women studying alongside her.
"Some of the professors treated you as if you were a skunk at a lawn party," she recalls, "and you were there as a hobby. Sometimes that takes your spirit away, and sometimes it makes you tougher. It made me mad and tough. There were a lot of schmucky guys in my class who were going to be very mediocre lawyers at best."
"I walked in and saw this cute-looking guy sitting at a table," she says of meeting her husband. She pointed at him and said, "Who's that?" And he said, "Lady, get your finger out of my face."
The poor treatment she encountered in law school spurred her on to a career as an aggressive lawyer and family-court judge. What it didn't do was make her a feminist. "I never felt I didn't have equal opportunity as a woman," she says. She never particularly sympathized with the women's libbers she encountered in the 1970s: "I believe in the individual spirit. It was hard for me to put my heart into organizations that were trying to tell me something that I never felt."
She met her beloved Jerry, another lawyer, at a New York bar after work one day. "I walked in and saw this cute-looking guy sitting at a table," she says. She pointed at him and said, "Who's that?" And he said "Lady, get your finger out of my face." They were married shortly thereafter and, despite both being lawyers, fell into a traditional domestic routine. "It was wrong, but I sort of took care of everything," she says. "We didn't have enough money, so I cleaned the house. I did the cooking. This 'sharing of stuff' didn't start until much later, unfortunately for me."
Sheindlin was a family-court judge in New York in the 1990s, when a 60 Minutes profile—inspired by her unconventional, confrontational courtroom style—led a producer to approach her with the idea of her own television show. (It was an idea she'd had herself many years earlier but for which she couldn't gain traction on her own.)
Judge Judy launched in the fall of 1996 and, after struggling for a period, began occasionally beating Oprah in its fourth season. The judge drew raves from most corners and quickly won millions of devoted fans and a few vocal detractors, among them Judge Joseph Wapner, then-host of The People's Court. Wapner spoke out harshly against Sheindlin's cutting style from the bench, calling her "a disgrace to the profession."
Sheindlin bristles at the criticism. "I think that you take political correctness sometimes to an illogical place," she says, "and the fact that I'm on for 14 years and Wapner is not, and I know what he has to say about me, and my only response is to say: 'If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all.'" To which she would only add, "Bottom line is, I'm here and he's not."
Though it has been the source of her success, that occasionally gruff exterior belies the tender side of Judge Judy: the irrepressible bubbe whose private and public personas are indistinguishable and have been over the course of her four-decade career.
Sheindlin has five children, 11 grandchildren, and a nation of vicarious progeny drawn to her unvarnished wisdom about life, dispensed via verdicts on her show: why you shouldn't co-sign the lease on your no-good boyfriend's new car; how to avoid grifters, losers, and Internet scams. She has written five books, including the bestsellers, Don't Pee on my Leg and Tell Me It's Raining and Beauty Fades, Dumb Is Forever. She gets emails all the time from young people around the country who grew up watching her show and have avoided making the mistakes of so many of her courtroom visitors. ("Somebody prints them out for me so I can read them," she says. "I don't use that computer thing.")
She can't resist doling out advice, beginning our interview with a recommendation to invest as soon as possible in real estate in South Florida ("I'm telling you, honey, save your money for a down payment") and continually emphasizing the importance of "the village of family" in any woman's life. She spends at least 45 minutes a day on the treadmill, attends movies, and reads only "what excites my interest."
And, at least through 2013, she's happy to continue dispensing justice and providing a little clarity in a complex world. "Life isn't fair," she says. "But at least for an hour a day, as long as I'm around, I like to think the right thing happens."
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.