Can ‘Judge Sarah’ Beat Judge Judy?

Sarah Palin likes to pass judgment. But does she have the staying power, attention span, and mass audience to be a successful TV courtroom judge?

03.30.16 5:00 AM ET

Right-wing populist luminary Sarah Palin—who, if all goes according to plan, will be the next Judge Judith Sheindlin—has settled into a long-established career pattern.

The 52-year-old former local TV sportscaster, who in 2008 caught lightning in a bottle, fame-wise, as the unlikely running mate to Republican standard-bearer John McCain, always begins whatever she’s doing with blindingly bright promise.

And then, more often than not, she tends to go rogue.

It’s a pattern that should give pause to Judge Judy veteran Larry Lyttle, former NBC Universal syndication chief Barry Wallach, and the other experienced players behind Palin’s latest venture, a syndicated daytime program in which she supposedly will use her “common sense” (since Palin has zero legal training) to preside over a television courtroom and rule on disputes between ordinary folk. 

Judge Sarah, or whatever it will be called, could possibly launch in the fall of 2017, assuming TV station groups can be enticed to buy it in the next few months.

Whether or not Palin actively participates in selling the show—and station group executives ordinarily expect to be schmoozed by the talent—most of the 2017 syndication deals will have to be locked in by the end of this summer.

What remains to be seen is whether advertisers would be willing to associate their brands with Palin, who despite a loyal following, is a polarizing figure who plays better in “the real America,” as she called the small towns in flyover country, than she does on the coasts.

The money-making potential for the former governor of Alaska and her latest business partners can’t be discounted. After two decades as Judge Judy, for instance, the acerbic Sheindlin makes a reported $47 million a year for her mega-hit show. “It’s not acting,” says TV Judge Tanya Acker, a practicing civil litigator who’s in the middle of her third season serving on the three-judge panel that decides small-claims cases on Hot Bench, the CBS-syndicated show created and produced by Sheindlin.

Acker, who received her law degree from Yale, said that during the weeks they are not taping from nine to 11 different disputes in a single day—rulings that have the force of law, since they are actually made-for-television binding arbitration proceedings—she and her fellow TV judges on the show spend intensive time reading the pleadings from small-claims litigants selected by the producers, and think hard about how the relevant statutes apply to each case.

“It’s not scripted. Not a dime. Not one bit. There is not one part of our show that is scripted,” Acker told The Daily Beast. “Even if I wanted to, you can’t script this stuff in advance… Nobody is telling us what to say. You’ve got to think on the fly and be able to react to information, and you may not be getting the information you thought you were going to get.”

Palin, however, is not known for her ad-libbing ability, nor for the discipline of steeping herself in memos and pleadings to prepare for a public appearance. Instead, she does best when working with a script, which she prefers to tweak to her liking and commit to memory.      

Meanwhile, assuming she is not using the current blast of publicity for leverage in pressing Donald Trump to pick her as his running mate, the Palin Pattern is going to be a challenge for the producers of Judge Sarah.

Charming when she wants to be, she possesses undeniable street smarts and a magnetic, relatable way of presenting herself that is perfect for the small screen.

Whenever Palin has taken on a new project, be it a political campaign or a speaking tour, she excels at it for awhile—as she did as the mayor of Wasilla, as Alaska’s youngest governor in history, as a commentator for the Fox News Channel, as the protagonist of a reality television show, and the namesake of an online video channel, to say nothing of her star turn 8½ years ago as one of the planet’s most compelling political personalities.

And then, according to some who have worked with her and spoke on condition of anonymity, she starts to manifest a celebrity version of attention deficit disorder.

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Or else, the many distractions of her complicated, frenzied life—the five children and their periodic brushes with the law, the youngest suffering from Down Syndrome, and the three grand children, plus, most recently, whatever commitment she’s made as the No. 1 Trump surrogate, and a husband recovering from grievous injuries sustained in a snowmobile accident—ultimately render her unable to focus on the task at hand.

Or else, she lapses into diva mode, exploding the best laid plans on a whim, and, when things go less than optimally, retreats into a psychic bubble, angry and sullen, unreachable—blaming everyone but herself.

Eventually Palin can succumb to a self-defeating and apparently uncontrollable streak of irrationality, suspecting her colleagues of working to undercut her, trying to make her look bad, and even toiling to kill her chances to run for president someday—basically driving everyone around her crazy.

Lyttle and company—who’ve had decades of experience handling difficult talent—know all this. They and their press spokesman, the media-savvy Howard Bragman, declined to comment for this article, seeing no reason to step on the already massive coverage Palin’s fledgling show received when it was announced in People magazine last week.

But I am reliably informed that they have screened Game Change, the HBO movie about Palin’s sudden appearance on the national scene during the 2008 campaign, or else have read the relevant portions of the best-selling book of the same name—in which some of the qualities enumerated above are documented.

But the Judge Sarah team has elected to take a calculated risk—and why not? The first test will not be whether Palin can produce a competent half-hour pilot for her show, but whether she can produce a decent “sizzle reel” of a few minutes in length in time for next month’s National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

Tanya Acker, for one, declined to give any pointers to the latest entrant into the TV judge business.

“I don’t have any advice for Sarah Palin,” she said. “I’m sure she’s got her own advisers.”

Judge Judy, meanwhile, was typically terse on a Beverly Hills sidewalk when ambushed over the weekend by TMZ.

“You have to use your common sense,” she said before fleeing the video paparazzo, “and know a little bit about the law.”