One of the most respected judges of our day, Joseph A. Wapner, died yesterday at the age of 97.
Haven’t heard of him? From 1981 – 1993 he was the TV judge who issued King Solomon-like decisions on The People’s Court. Judge Wapner lived a rich and productive life. With a nod to last night’s Academy Awards, in high school in Hollywood he dated Lana Turner who went on to become a famous actress. He served in World Ward II and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, practiced law in Los Angeles for 10 years, and was appointed to the bench. He served on the California municipal and superior courts for 20 years before retiring. He was widely respected and even got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
His show was the first of a long line of courtroom reality programs that continue today. OK, beginning in 1957 there was the Perry Mason show about a brilliant criminal defense lawyer who somehow always won his cases. Perry inspired many of us young people to become attorneys.
A poll showed that almost no Americans could name even one justice on our exalted Supreme Court, but more than half could name Judge Wapner, who heard small disputes about evictions and dog bites.
Judge Wapner helped revolutionize the court system by showing viewers the basics of a trial where they didn’t need lawyers. As a result, the dockets of small claims and justice of the peace courts dramatically increased.