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In this clip, Judge Judy Sheindlin directs a defendant to “talk fast.” He responds with, “If you wouldn’t cut me off, I’d be able to talk fast.” Judge Judy, out of disbelief or humor, asks the bailiff to confirm that this is what he said and immediately proceeds to rule in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $5,000.

Obviously, this was not the appropriate response from the defendant. While I don’t take issue with her decision from a moral point of view, is this an ethical decision for a judge to make? If the defendant’s case has genuine validity, could he pursue that decision in another court? And does Judge Judy have more legal leeway because she presides over a family court or appears on television?

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    Judy Sheindlin is in the entertainment industry, where the bar is (ahem) low. She is acting as an arbitrator, not a judge (despite her former employment). Please clarify what legal question you are asking. – user6726 Jul 10 '17 at 15:21
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    Judge Judy reviewed the case beforehand and made a preliminary determination based on the submitted statements and evidence provided. The show is mainly theatrics done for impact. – Lefteris E Jul 10 '17 at 19:57
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    It's not often I see a distinction made between morals and ethics... +1 for that. – Mehrdad Jul 10 '17 at 22:08
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    To clarify @LefterisE's point, Judge Judy is not a judge. And "Arbitrator Judy with a preagreed $5K damages limit" sounds less telegenic. – smci Jul 11 '17 at 0:05
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    When the plague of reality TV goes too far. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jul 12 '17 at 0:55
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If this case was decided before a real judge, rather than Judge Judy, the impertinent party could be held in direct contempt of court (imposed summarily and punishable by penalties similar to a misdemeanor crime), after being given a moment to make a mitigating statement, but should not have have had the case summarily decided by the judge merely on that basis.

A judgment imposed on that basis without further findings of fact would ordinarily be reversed on appeal (unless the appeal was from a court not of record, in which case a new trial is held in a new court following every appeal in any case). But, a contempt of court award in that situation would be reviewed for abuse of discretion and it would be a close call as to whether a contempt of court finding would be upheld for that conduct which is close to an abuse of discretion at a minimum. It would depend to some extent on the sanction imposed and a $5000 fine would probably be considered excessive in that context.

Usually, however, arbitrators do not have contempt of court powers the way that almost all ordinary judges in the U.S. do.

On the other hand, while there are isolated reasons for invalidating an arbitration award, it would be an uphill battle to get an arbitration award overturned on this basis, although not impossible. An arbitration award must usually involve some good faith effort by the arbitrator to resolve the case on the merits even if particular mistakes of law or fact are not reviewable. Indeed, the most common reason that arbitration awards are reversed is the refusal of the arbitrator to consider all relevant evidence. The prevailing party could argue that this was a de facto sanction award rather than a true resolution on the merits and might very well win, but it wouldn't be an ironclad class.

Whether it is ethical is another matter that has two answers. At the level of did a judge give someone something that they didn't deserve, the ethical answer may very well be no. But, at the level of formal sanctionable judicial ethics, this would probably violate the duty of a judge to show judicial decorum and respect the process, although it would probably be a very minor offense resulting at most in a public reprimand.

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    How rarely does it actually happen that a party making one ill-advised remark (as opposed to much more serious modes of contempt) actually gets jailed for contempt (as opposed to fined or sanctioned)? AFAIK it almost never happens. – smci Jul 11 '17 at 0:10
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    @smci It is rare, but not something that never happens either. Some judges are much more wrathful than others and if a wrathful judge, an irritating party and a bad day for the judge converge, it does happen. It would be rare for incarceration for something like that to exceed one day, or at most a weekend, in practice. – ohwilleke Jul 11 '17 at 0:15
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    Uhuh. I purposely said 'almost never happens' not 'never'. – smci Jul 11 '17 at 0:19
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    @smci There are no good statistics out there to quantify exactly how often this happens. I probably see several news reports about such incidents a year and maybe one in ten or twenty such incidents that happen get reported in the media. So, my guess would be that this happens thirty to a hundred times a year in the U.S., but that's a very rough estimate. – ohwilleke Jul 11 '17 at 0:25
  • @smci Also, the existence and at least infrequent use of the contempt power is actually very important, notwithstanding its rare actual use, because it has a powerful and pervasive impact on behavior in the courtroom. For example, I instructe my clients regarding this possibility in 100% of the cases that I litigate in the courtroom and would consider it verging on malpractice not to do so if there is any realistic possibility that my client could do something like that in a particular case. – ohwilleke Jul 11 '17 at 22:00
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This wasn’t an actual court case.

The show seeks people in civil disputes and pays them to have their case arbitrated by Judy instead of settled in court. (The legal term for this is Alternative Dispute Resolution, I believe.)

They sign contracts agreeing to be bound by whatever decision Judy makes.

The show then sets up this mock trial, and she is free to come up with whatever “judgment” she wants, without having to heed actual civil procedure.

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    Since all judgements are paid by the TV show and not the losing party, I think the TV show limits her to judgements up to $5,000. If she either thinks that a correct judgement would far exceed $5,000, or she thinks the plaintiff/defendant created a fake case to rip off the program, she can refuse judgement and the parties are free to go to a proper court. – gnasher729 Jul 10 '17 at 17:02
  • How is "agreeing to be bound by whatever decision Judy makes" legal? Could you clarify this point? I am assuming that Judy cannot sentence anyone to prison - only monetary fines, which are paid by the TV show anyway – Ant Jul 11 '17 at 17:05
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    @Ant, look up binding arbitration. – mikeazo Jul 11 '17 at 17:33
  • @Ant they mean whatever decision regarding the case. Obviously there is a bit more in the contract specifying what is actually allowed. For instance, they cannot generally give ruling on what wasn't already asked for in the complaint. – The Great Duck Jul 12 '17 at 1:39
  • "without having to heed actual civil procedure." -- Or any kind of law or precedent. I can't stand the show due to the sheer quantity of cases where she's obviously decided who she favors before even hearing the evidence... – Perkins Jul 12 '17 at 18:22
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Is this an ethical decision for a judge to make?

It depends. We don't have enough context from the clip to tell. It's possible the defendant had a weak case on the facts, the law was against him, and all this happened toward the end of a trial he was about to lose anyway. In that case, Judge Judy's verdict would tend more ethical. If all this occurred at the beginning of the trial and the defendant was just about to make his opening oral argument prior to presenting his evidence, then Judge Judy's verdict would tend less ethical. We don't have enough context to make a call.

If the defendant’s case has genuine validity, could he pursue that decision in another court?

It depends on the arbitration rules in effect at that moment. Both litigants would have signed binding arbitration agreements with the show's production company that might allow it. Also, many courts in many jurisdictions allow for a du novo appeal in court of arbitration decisions.

And does Judge Judy have more legal leeway because she presides over a family court or appears on television?

No. The rules of arbitration and court proceedings do not make exceptions for presiding in family court or appearing on television.

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