The People's Court

This article is about a US television program. For other similarly named entities, see People's Court (disambiguation).
The People's Court
Genre Reality court show
Created by John Masterson
Presented by Doug Llewelyn (1981–93, 2016–present)
Harvey Levin (1997–present)
Judges Joseph Wapner (1981–93)
Ed Koch (1997–99)
Jerry Sheindlin (1999–2001)
Marilyn Milian (2001–present)
Narrated by Jack Harrell (1981–93)
Curt Chaplin (1997–present)
Theme music composer Alan Tew (1981–present)
Opening theme "The Big One" (1981–93)
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 12 (original series)
20 (revived series)
32 (overall)
Executive producer(s) Ralph Edwards
Stu Billett
Location(s) Manhattan Mall
New York City, New York
Camera setup Multi-camera
Running time 22 minutes (1981–93)
44 minutes (1997–present)
Production company(s) Ralph Edwards Productions (1981–87)
Stu Billett Productions (1981–87)
Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Productions (1987–93; 1997–present)
Distributor Telepictures Corporation (1981–86) (seasons 1-5)
Lorimar-Telepictures (1986–89) (seasons 6-8)
Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (1989–93; 1997–present) (seasons 8-12; season 1-present)
Original network Syndicated
Picture format SDTV 480i (1981–present)
Aspect ratio:
4:3 (1981–2012)
16:9 (2012–present)
Audio format Stereo
Original release Original series: September 14, 1981 (1981-09-14) – May 17, 1993 (1993-05-17)
Revived series: September 8, 1997 (1997-09-08) – present
External links

The People's Court is an American arbitration-based reality court show presided over by retired Florida State Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian (her 15th season as the show's arbitrator by September 7, 2015). Milian, the show's longest-reigning arbiter, handles small claims disputes in a simulated courtroom set.[1]

The People's Court is the first court show to use binding arbitration, introducing the format into the genre in 1981. The system has been duplicated by most of the show's successors in the judicial genre. Moreover, The People's Court is the first popular, long-running reality in the judicial genre. It was preceded only by a few short-lived realities in the genre; these short-lived predecessors were only loosely related to judicial proceedings, except for one: Parole (1959) took footage from real-life courtrooms holding legal proceedings.[2] Prior to The People's Court, the vast majority of TV courtroom shows used actors, and recreated or fictional cases (as did radio before that). Among examples of these types of court shows include Famous Jury Trials and Your Witness.

The People's Court has had two incarnations. The show's first life was presided over solely by former Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner.[3][4] His tenure lasted from the show's debut on September 14, 1981, until May 17, 1993, when the show was cancelled due to low ratings.[5] This left the show with a total of 2,484 ½-hour episodes and 12 seasons. The show was taped in Los Angeles during its first life. After being cancelled, reruns aired in syndication until September 9, 1994,[6] and on the USA Network from October 16, 1995 to June 6, 1997.[7][8]

On September 8, 1997, after being out of production for four years, The People's Court was revived for a second life in first-run syndication as a 60-minute program. Former lawyer and Mayor of New York Ed Koch was chosen as arbiter, which he maintained for two seasons. By the 1999–2000 season, former New York State Supreme Court Judge Jerry Sheindlin (husband of Judy Sheindlin from Judge Judy) succeeded Koch. Sheindlin only lasted one and a half seasons and was replaced towards the end of the 2000–01 season. Since spring 2001, Marilyn Milian has been the judge.

With 32 seasons as of September 5, 2016, The People's Court ranks as the second longest-running courtroom series in history (behind Divorce Court). Its current production life entered its 20th season on September 5, 2016.[9]


When John Masterson devised the original camera-in-court concept in 1975, he first pitched it to Monty Hall, the producer and host of the game show Let's Make a Deal, and his partner, producer-writer Stefan Hatos. They put a young associate, Stu Billett, in charge of selling it, but the networks were not interested. Billett later went out on his own and refined the concept into a show shot in a studio rather than a real courtroom. Small claims court participants agreed to drop their court cases and accept binding arbitration in a simulated courtroom. The networks expressed interest but still did not buy it; however, it did sell into the first run syndication market.[10] The series was executive produced by Ralph Edwards, who also created and hosted the documentary show This Is Your Life, and Stu Billett, who later went on to create Moral Court. John Masterson, who many consider a pioneer and originator of "reality TV" also created Bride and Groom and Breakfast in Hollywood.

First Version (1981-93)

The People's Court pilot episode was taped on October 23, 1980, with a second pilot episode taped on January 13, 1981. It debuted in syndication on September 14, 1981.

The judge from the show's original twelve years (including the 1980 pilot), was Joseph Wapner. Rusty Burrell was his bailiff,[11] Jack Harrell was the announcer, and Doug Llewelyn was the host and court reporter, who would announce the matter of the dispute at the beginning of each trial. He would also interview the plaintiff and the defendant after the court ruling, to gauge their responses to the verdict. Llewelyn would often end each episode with a jaunty "If you're in a dispute with another party and you can't seem to work things out, don't take the law into your own hands; you take 'em to court", which became something of a 1980s catchphrase. If a case ended with a verdict for the defendant, however, Llewelyn would instead end the episode by saying, "If someone files a lawsuit against you and yet you're convinced you've done nothing wrong, don't be intimidated. The best policy is to go to court and stand up for your rights".

The cases often had pun-related names, such as "The Case of the Overdone Underthings" and "A Head with a Beer on It".

Judge Wapner would greet his litigants by saying, "I know you've been sworn. I've read your complaint..."

Occasionally, if an episode wrapped up a few minutes early, Judge Wapner would field questions from the courtroom observers, or there would be commentary from the legal consultant explaining the legal reasons behind Wapner's decisions.

The People's Court deals in small claims matters. When the show premiered in 1981, litigants could not sue for more than US$1,500, which was the limit for small claims court at the time in California. As the laws in California changed, so did this amount. By the end of the show's first life in 1993, litigants could sue for up to US$5,000, which is now the law in most states.

Researchers for the show would examine small claims filings in Southern California and approach the plaintiff and defendant in interesting cases. The producers would offer to have Judge Wapner arbitrate the dispute if they would agree to dismiss their action and be bound by Judge Wapner's decision. Through this approach, the show could get real people with real cases. Though the show is decorated and run like a real courtroom, it is not a real court or part of any judicial system, but instead a form of binding arbitration.

The losing party does not actually need to pay the judgment, as such. Instead (as is stated in the disclaimer at the end of each show), both parties are paid from a fund (set up by Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Productions). This fund was based on the amount of the lawsuit claim, but an exact formula was not stated. The fund was to be first divided equally, then any monetary judgment ordered was subtracted from the loser's half (and presumably both halves in the case of cross judgments). Each litigant received at least what remained of their half in shows concluding with that disclaimer.

The disclaimer did not call this fund an "appearance fee", a term which appeared later in connection with The People's Court and other court shows. There may have been a later period when The People's Court paid the judgment, plus expenses and only a modest appearance fee to each litigant.[12]


After twelve seasons on The People's Court, it was announced that Wapner was not invited back to the court show in 1993. The producers of The People's Court wished to revamp the series but did not notify Wapner of this decision. Wapner learned of the decision from his brother-in-law, who read it in The San Francisco Chronicle. Wapner has expressed holding great resentment and bitterness at the court show's producers for finding out this way, and additional resentment over being let go when, according to him, the show was doing well. However, although the show had a good run ratings-wise, the ratings had dropped to an all-time low at around the time The People's Court was cancelled.

Wapner has stated that he was told years later that the producers did not want to hurt his feelings; however, he has stated that this is exactly what the producers did. Wapner has also stated that he was not notified when the producers decided to revamp the series. He has stated that he holds no opinions on The People's Court judges who succeeded him as he never watches the program. He did, however, note that the two People's Court judges who succeeded him, Ed Koch and Jerry Sheindlin, only lasted two seasons each whereas he lasted 12 seasons. He also emphasized that judges need to be respectful of litigants.[13]

Second version (1997-present)

On September 8, 1997, a new version of The People's Court debuted in first-run syndication as a 60-minute program. The series as a whole reached its 32nd season on September 5, 2016, with its 20th season in its current production cycle. By that point, the 1997 revival has already outlasted its original version, which ran 12 seasons. The show's second life has been headed by three judges since its debut.

Ed Koch (Seasons 1-2, 1997-99)

When the new People's Court premiered in 1997, former New York newscaster Carol Martin of WCBS-TV hosted from a studio with Harvey Levin, who was involved with the prior edition of the series as a legal consultant, serving as a co-host in the field taking questions and opinions from people at the Manhattan Mall, then returning to the studio at the end of the show for a wrap-up. Curt Chaplin was hired to serve as the show's announcer and to fill Doug Llwelyn's position as the court reporter, although with the addition of a host his role was limited to interviewing the litigants after the conclusion of each case.

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch presided over the court from September 8, 1997 to June 25, 1999 (with reruns airing until September 10).[14] Several months into the run Martin departed the series and Levin became the series' sole host. The studio segments were done away with and Levin hosted the entire episodes from the viewing area, which eventually moved from the Manhattan Mall to the Times Square visitors' center. Since Levin is now based in Los Angeles with TMZ, the viewing area has moved to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California while production of The People's Court has moved to Connecticut. The opening outlines of the taped cases are shown to people in the outdoor viewing area on a monitor. Their responses are edited into the program.

Jerry Sheindlin (Seasons 3-4, 1999-March 2001)

Judge Jerry Sheindlin (husband of former New York Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin, the presiding judge over the court show Judge Judy[15][16]) sat on the bench from September 13, 1999[14] to March 9, 2001, and ratings on the show lagged.[17] The bailiff for both of these judges' tenures was Josephine Ann Longobardi.

Marilyn Milian era (Since Season 4, 2001–present)

Marilyn Milian began hosting the series 2001.

On March 12, 2001, late in The People's Court's fourth season, retired Florida State Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian replaced Sheindlin as presiding judge on the court show.[18] Under Milian, People's Court ratings improved significantly.[17] Milian is the first Latin judge to preside over a courtroom series.[1] Milian is also the show's youngest and first female arbitrator. By completion of the 16th season of The People's Court (2012–13), Milian had completed 12 and a half seasons presiding over the series, officially making her the longest reigning judge over the program—outlasting Joseph Wapner's reign of 12 seasons. Now in its 20th revival season, Milian enters her 16th season presiding over the series. For the remainder of the 2000–01 season, Davey Jones took over the role as bailiff, replacing Longobardi. In September 2001, Jones was replaced by Douglas McIntosh, who remains to the present day.

In 2008, The People's Court, under Milian's reign, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award under a new Courtroom/Legal Show category created by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. In 2009 and 2010, the show was nominated again for the Daytime Emmy Award under the same category, but did not win. On May 1, 2013, The People's Court had again been nominated for a "Outstanding Legal/Courtroom Program" Daytime Emmy Award, but again did not win.[19]

While the show taped from New York City for the first 15 seasons of the revival, it began taping from Stamford, Connecticut in the 16th season of its present installment (2012–13).

For the show's 20th season, Doug Llewelyn returned to the series for the first time since the end of the original series. He resumed his previous role as reporter, replacing Curt Chaplin who remains in his announcer role. For his first show back, Judge Milian welcomed him "home" and handed him his suit jacket and microphone.[20]

Series overview

Opening monologue

When the original People's Court first hit the air, The monologue was as follows:

What you are about to witness is real. The participants are not actors. They are the actual people who have already either filed suit or been served a summons to appear in a California municipal court. Both parties in the suit have agreed to dismiss their court cases and have their disputes settled here, in our forum: The People's Court.

Later, the show opened with:

What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in a California municipal court. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their court cases and have their disputes settled here, in our forum: The People's Court.

In the 1997 revival, the line was:

What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in a New York metropolitan area court/civil court. Both parties/sides have agreed to drop their claims and have their disputes settled here, in our/Judge Jerry Sheindlin's forum (the latter from the period when Jerry Sheindlin was the presiding judge): The People's Court.

When Marilyn Milian replaced Sheindlin in 2001, the previous intro was revised:

What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with real cases. They will settle their disputes here, in Judge Marilyn Milian's forum: The People's Court.

Later, Milian's intro was revised:

There's a new judge in town, the honorable Marilyn Milian. She will be hearing real cases presented by real litigants who have agreed to have their disputes settled here in our forum: The People's Court.

Then the opening was changed to:

The whole country's talking about the honorable Marilyn Milian... [soundbite of Judge Milian saying, "Judge here!"]... the hottest judge on television. [Soundbite of Judge saying, "It's my ruling!"] She'll hear real cases from real litigants. Here, in our forum: The People's Court.

After a few months the soundbites of Judge Milian's voice were dropped from the opening, and the wording of Curt Chaplin's introduction was slightly changed:

Everybody's talking about the honorable Marilyn Milian, the hottest judge on television. Real cases, real litigants. Here, in our forum: The People's Court.

In September 2009, the new opening was revealed when the new season premiered:

What you are about to witness is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in civil court. Both parties have agreed to drop their claims and have their cases settled here, before Judge Marilyn Milian, in our forum: The People's Court.

Litigant compensation

At the end of each show, the following disclaimer appears:

Both the plaintiff and the defendant have been paid from a fund for their appearance. The amount, if any, awarded in the case, is deducted from this fund, and the remainder is divided equally between both litigants. The amount of the fund is dependent on the size of the judgment.

No information is given as to what relation the amount of the fund bears to the size of the judgment, nor the amount of the fund if a verdict for the defense is rendered.

In a talk show appearance, Judge Wapner gave a few more specifics as to how compensation was typically calculated. In his words, if the plaintiff won, the show would pay his/her judgment and give the defendant $50 for his time, whereas if the defendant won, the parties would "split $500".

In 1989, a litigant sued the producers, claiming, "I was only willing to appear because they guaranteed me $1,500. I never would have appeared on that show and made a fool out of myself for a chintzy $250." (In response, an associate producer said that before going on the show, participants are given a packet of information "where everything is clearly outlined to the nth degree.")[12]

The New York Post reported on some of the details surrounding compensation for a lawsuit filed by Claudia Evart. "The show pays all damages awarded to defendants and plaintiffs, as well as a $250 appearance fee."[21]

Production notes

The 1981–93 life of the show was initially taped at Golden West Broadcasters and, later, Metromedia in Los Angeles, before moving to The Production Group. In New York City, The People's Court first taped episodes at the NEP/Image studios in the former Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which was also the studio for the talk show Maury. In 1998, the show began taping at the MTI Studios on the 8th Floor at 401 Fifth Avenue, where the courtroom received a makeover. In 2006, the MTI Studios was sold to NEP/Image. At the end credits of some episodes, it says the show is taped at the NEP/Image studios. The former MTI studios are officially part of NEP Broadcasting's NEP Penn Studios.

As of 2012, the show has moved to the Connecticut Film Center in Stamford, Connecticut.[22] The aired episodes are sometimes spliced together in a different order from which they are taped. This is why the judge's blouse color may change and why there may be fewer courtroom observers during the second half of the show than there are during the first half. For the 2012 season the show started broadcasting in widescreen standard definition.

The People's Court is "A Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Production" in association with Telepictures Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. The original series was distributed by Telepictures, and later Lorimar-Telepictures, which is now part of Warner Bros.

Theme music

The theme music, "The Big One (People's Court Theme)", was composed by Alan Stanley Tew. The uptempo theme music, with prominent piano theme and bongo drum rhythm, has been sampled by many artists, including Nelly. It has also been featured in several films and television shows, including the 1977 pornographic film Barbara Broadcast, the BCTV current afairs show Webster!, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons, "Blue Harvest", the sixth season premiere episode of Family Guy, The December 5, 2005 and December 21, 2009 editions of WWE Raw in Tampa, Florida, Malibu High, Boy Meets World, as well as Popular.


To date, The People's Court ranks second behind Judge Judy in the ratings for court shows.[23] It had been third behind Judge Joe Brown, but inherited the #2 spot once Brown's program was off the air due to cancellation.

British version

A British version of the show was produced by STV Productions (then known as "SMG TV Productions") to replace Trisha Goddard's talk show on ITV in 2005. The court reporter was Carol Smillie, the male judge was Jerome Lynch and the female judge was Rhonda Anderson.[24] The show was considered a failure and not renewed.

In 1986, Judge Wapner appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to preside over a dispute arbitration between David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Letterman sued after Carson illegally towed his car and broke the headlight. He was awarded $24.95. (Link to video (YouTube))

The original version of the show was referenced repeatedly in the 1988 film Rain Man. In the movie, autistic savant Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman) compulsively watches the show (which he refers to as simply "Wapner"), recites the entire opening monologue, and records the judgment amounts in a dedicated notebook. In one scene, his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) awkwardly convinces a stranger to let Raymond watch the show in her house, since he was about to have a panic attack for nearly missing an episode. Charlie later buys him a portable television so he will never miss an episode again. It was actually Hoffman himself who came up with this idea for his character, because in real-life, Hoffman was a huge fan of the original series.[25]

In 1995, Judge Wapner appeared on the Fox network's science fiction show Sliders as himself in the parallel world version of this program where, as a Soviet judge, he sentences Rembrandt Brown to 15 years in the Alaskan gulag for being a subversive. The parody show's logo uses a faux Cyrillic "Я" in place of the "R" in "Court".

The December 21, 2009 edition of WWE Raw in Tampa, Florida featured a parody skit called the "Little People's Court", in which Degeneration X members Triple H and Shawn Michaels had to appear before a mock makeshift court of dwarves to testify about their continued mistreating of Hornswoggle. The videos that were shown during the "trial" even used the litigant introduction music of the original People's Court theme.

In SpongeBob SquarePants, whenever a character has to go to court, the same opening music is played and the trial is conducted in a form similar to The People's Court.

See also


  1. 1 2 "The People's Court | Judge Milian". Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  3. Troutman, Andrew. "Judge Joseph Wapner". Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  4. "TV: 'People's Court', 'Reality' in the Morning", New York Times, September 8, 1981
  5. "People's Court Final Airing 5-17-93". Retrieved 17 October 2016.
  6. The Intelligencer – September 9, 1994
  7. The Intelligencer – October 16, 1995
  8. The Post Standard – June 6, 1997
  9. "The People's Court | About". Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  10. Grace, Roger. "'People's Court': the Show the Networks Spurned". Metropolitan News-Enterprise. Retrieved 9 August 2013.
  11. Rusty Burrell (1925–2002) was a sheriff's department court bailiff in several famous Los Angeles trials, the Manson murders, The Onion Field murder, the Patty Hearst/SLA bank robbery, and the Caryl Chessman "Red Light Bandit". Burrell had appeared on TV in the 1950s Divorce Court, and it was also his job at that show to find real attorneys to appear on camera. One of those regular Divorce Court attorneys was Judge Joseph Wapner's father. 'People's Court' Bailiff Dies 2002-04-21,; Inside Judge Wapner's wallet at the Wayback Machine (archived October 21, 2003) by Ken Kurson, 2000-08-04, Green magazine at
  12. 1 2 'People's Court' Finds Itself Before the Dock – NYT June 15, 1989]
  13. "Joseph A. Wapner Interview". Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  14. 1 2 The People's Court: His Honor JERRY SHEINDLIN (Judge) at the Wayback Machine (archived September 19, 2000)
  15. Jerry and Judy Sheindlin Discuss Laying Down the Law on TV "KING: ... she's tough." – CNN Larry King Live transcript, aired September 12, 2000
  16. NYT 2008-01-31 "'Judge Judy', the longest-running and highest-rated courtroom show in syndication..."
  17. 1 2 Lovell Banks, Taunya. "27". Judging the Judges-Daytime Television's Integrated Reality Court Bench. p. 311.
  18. New Judge For 'People's Court' – 2000-12-21,
  19. "Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards – 40th Annual Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards Nominations". Retrieved 2013-05-05.
  21. Boniello, Kathianne (January 29, 2012). "'The People's Court' rocked by possible murder mystery, episode controversy". New York Post. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  22. "Tickets & Information". Onset Productions. 2012-09-05. Retrieved 2013-09-01.
  23. Albiniak, Paige (2012-11-07). "Syndication Ratings: Syndies Steady Headed Into November Sweeps". Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  24. The People's Court UK at the Wayback Machine (archived January 1, 2006), 2006
  25. Houston Chronicle (January 27, 1989); "Houston has its day in `The People's Court' Notoriety `rains' on Judge Wapner"
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