Judge Joseph Wapner, Who Presided Over “The People’s Court,” Dies at 97

Photo: Judge Joseph Wapner of the “People’s Court” TV program poses for a portrait in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC on May 10, 1984. (Photo by Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Judge Joseph Wapner, the star of The People’s Court, died of natural causes at that age of 97 on Sunday, February 26, at his home in Los Angeles.

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Wapner became a household name in 1981, when he starred in The People’s Court, the first courtroom reality show on television. For the next twelve years, he taped more than 2,300 half-hour long episodes, becoming the face of justice in the mainstream media.

The first show to feature actual litigants in a courtroom setting, the participants on The People’s Court agreed to binding arbitration, making Judge Wapner the star of the show. With his judgments uncontested, his word was law. The litigants disputed over small claims, matters people can easily relate to in their daily lives, which made it an instant hit. As announcer Doug Llewelyn concluded at the end of every episode, “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.”

Judge Wapner ran a peaceful, competent court marked by his easygoing, albeit stodgy, approach to the rule of law. He had a natural way with the plaintiffs and the defendants, able to bring people back to focus when emotions ran high. His demeanor allowed the cases to naturally unfold, exposing an American fascination for the system of justice and the opportunity for resolution, if not vindication, for wrongs done unto either side.

In 1986, Wapner explained the appeal of The People’s Court to the Associated Press, observing, “Everything on the show is real. There’s no script, no rehearsal, no retakes. Everything form beginning to end is like a real courtroom, and I personally consider each case a trial. Sometimes I don’t even deliberate. I just decide from the bench, it’s so obvious. The beautiful part is that I have carte blanche.”

Judge Joseph Wapner of the "People's Court" TV program poses for a portrait in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC on May 10, 1984. (Photo by Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Judge Joseph Wapner of the “People’s Court” TV program poses for a portrait in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC on May 10, 1984.
(Photo by Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The success of The People’s Court, not to mention its low production overhead, made it a very popular model in what would soon become a burgeoning field. Its popularity launched a slew of arbitration-based reality courtroom shows, like Divorce Court, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis, and Texas Justice, among countless others, making it one of the most popular trends in the genre of court-related viewing. It also shored up an audience for 24/7 court-related viewing, with the 1991 launch of Court TV, now known as truTV.

The People’s Court, which went off the air briefly after Judge Wapner retired from service, was revived in 1997, with former New York City Major Ed Koch as presiding judge. Since 2001, Judge Marilyn Milian has presided over The People’s Court, and, at 20 seasons, currently ranks as the second-longest running courtroom series in television history, behind Divorce Court.

And lest we forget, The People’s Court also had one of the funkiest theme songs in television history. YouTube has graciously put together a highlight reel of Judge Wapner’s most priceless moments.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.