A glowing verdict for Judge Wapner

We lost a great judge on February 26 when Joseph A. Wapner, 97, was called to his eternal rest.

We remember him from “The People’s Court,” the hit daytime television show from the 1980s, but Judge Wapner also was a strongly identified American Jew. He once remarked that when he was elected presiding judge over the Los Angeles Superior Court system in 1961, “I was the only Jew who’d ever been elected — and I don’t know when there’ll be another.” Between college and law school he served in the Pacific in World War II, taking shrapnel in his left foot in the Philippines, and earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. After a decade as a practicing attorney and over two decades on the Los Angeles bench, Judge Wapner was selected to serve as the judge on the hit series “The People’s Court,” which began in 1981 and continued in its original version with Judge Wapner until 1993.

A 1989 Washington Post poll found that while two-thirds of Americans could not name a single justice sitting on the United States Supreme Court, 54 per cent could identify Judge Wapner as the judge of “The People’s Court.” Judge Wapner became a symbol for Americans of the wisdom of good justice and the mediating role of the judiciary. That is a symbol worth remembering today.

I, along with several hundred other Jewish college students, heard Joseph Wapner speak at a United Synagogue Koach/College Outreach convention. He was always proud of being Jewish and embraced the opportunity to speak with us. I can’t remember exactly when or where it was, except that I was about a quarter-century younger, and that the judge’s presence and words ring as loudly in my ears today as they did then.

The immediate impression you got of Judge Wapner was his dignified and commanding presence. When we stand before a judge we find ourselves standing taller, reaching for our humanity even as we are humbled by authority. The most powerful bracha I recite with people as a rabbi is the traditional blessing we say when we tear the clothing or ribbon just before a funeral. At the moment of utmost grief and despair, we acknowledge God as “the True Judge” (dayan ha-emet). Modern theologians often struggle with the implications of those words, but for me they express not belief but emotion.

A true judge commands our acceptance of the result, even if it is not what we wanted. We imagine God in our image, just as we imitate the image of God. This might be why judges are sometimes referred to as “gods” in the Torah.

Judge Wapner commanded acceptance of his words. When he spoke, you listened. Let me remind my readers of a few elements of “The People’s Court.” The judge had a great deal of experience on the bench of a great city, and the litigants were not actors. The cases were real. The producers would find people from small claims court and decide which cases to invite the litigants to submit to Judge Wapner. The litigants would sign an arbitration agreement, agreeing to be bound by Judge Wapner’s decision in lieu of their civil court proceedings. That excited the television audience. Yes, “The People’s Court” was the first reality TV series, way ahead of the later trend.

I learned from the idea of the “The People’s Court” the value of arbitration, that the foundation of a legal system, and ultimately of civilization in general, is the litigants’ agreement to follow given rules of procedure and abide by the results. Later, as I studied for the rabbinate, I developed a theory of Jewish law as itself an arbitration system. We talk about “rabbinic law,” but the original rabbis who developed this law lived under the rule of Rome. Their authority was not enforceable except through the willing and voluntary acceptance of their adherents, much like the way religion functions today. The basis of law is rooted not in the power of the executive but rather in the consent of the governed.

Understanding, then, how “The People’s Court” dealt with real cases that were selected and televised for commercial purposes, I remember how surprised I was to listen to what Judge Wapner had to say to us at that Jewish college students’ conference. Whenever he heard a case, he explained to us, going back to his days on the Los Angeles bench, he always first would ask to see the parties in chambers. There he would listen to what each had to say and try to work out an agreement. In most cases, he was successful in working out a settlement in lieu of hearing the case.

He told us that of course he understood that we (and his television audience) enjoyed watching the drama of courtroom testimony, but that we should understand that he always saw himself as a failure if he had to hear the case in trial. Why? Because the judicial system works best when it can work out a settlement, usually argued by attorneys, and often with a judge’s impartial guidance. Because that way, Judge Wapner explained to us, each party walks out with something. When you to go trial there is a winner and a loser.

“I would judge the case as best I could,” he told us, “but no matter what, half the people who came to me would go home disappointed.”

That lesson I learned that day from Judge Wapner has served me ever since, as a rabbi and as a human being. We are most civilized, most cultured, when we can find solutions where everyone walks away with something. There are times when that does not work. And for that we have means that are both established and fair for deciding who and which view prevails. But usually we are able to work out our differences so there need not be winners and losers.

Judge Wapner told us that we should do that, as he had always sought to do.

Judge Wapner served as a symbol for me of what the judiciary means in society. People always will have disputes with other people. That is human nature. But the true human society is the one that elevates judges so that they can resolve disputes. We learn in the Talmud that the seventh of the Noahide laws, the capping principle of general goodness, is the establishment of courts. This is a principle that we need to remember at all times, but especially when the nature of society and governance is being re-examined.

There is nothing more critical to the moral fabric of a civilization than the respect, dignity, and deference given to its judges.

May Judge Wapner’s memory be for a blessing. Baruch Dayan Ha-emet. Blessed be the True Judge.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
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