A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 1989 found that while two-thirds of those surveyed could not name any of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, 54 percent could identify Wapner as the judge of “The People’s Court.”

Share story

Joseph A. Wapner, a California judge who became a widely recognized symbol of tough but fair-minded American jurisprudence during the 12 years he sat on the bench of the syndicated television show “The People’s Court,” died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.

His death was confirmed to The Associated Press by his son David.

Wapner had served for 20 years on the California Municipal and Superior courts before becoming the occasionally irascible, highly watchable star of “The People’s Court,” a daytime series on which real-life plaintiffs and defendants from California small claims courts would argue their cases before him.

A decorated veteran of World War II, Wapner ran his television courtroom from the show’s debut in 1981 to the end of its original run in 1993 with stern, mesmerizing discipline, cutting off on-screen complainants who displeased him and threatening to levy unspecified penalties on those who dared to interrupt him.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

But Wapner’s reasoned verdicts, in disputes over missing pets, encroaching fences or botched hairdos, were difficult to argue with. And his evenhanded hearings of cases in which mere pocket change was at stake let millions of viewers know that no matter how seemingly insignificant their legal disputes, they too were entitled to their day in court.

“People think I’m kind and considerate, and that I listen and evaluate, and give each party a chance to talk,” Wapner said in an interview just as “The People’s Court” was becoming a nationwide hit. “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”

Born on Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, Joseph Albert Wapner graduated in 1937 from Hollywood High School, where he briefly dated future film actress Lana Turner, and in 1941 from the University of Southern California, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

During World War II he served with the Army in the Pacific and was wounded by sniper fire on Cebu Island in the Philippines, leaving him with shrapnel in his left foot. He won the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his bravery, and was honorably discharged in 1945.

After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California in 1948, Wapner worked in private practice as a lawyer for nearly a decade, until Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Two years later Wapner was elected presiding judge of the city’s vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised some 200 fellow judges.

“I was the only Jew who’d ever been elected,” he said in a 1982 interview, “and I don’t know when there’ll be another.”

Of the numerous cases Wapner heard before his retirement from the bench in 1979, perhaps the most notorious was the divorce trial of California sports tycoon Jack Kent Cooke and his first wife, Jeannie Carnegie. The $49 million settlement that Carnegie ultimately received would earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But the full measure of Wapner’s celebrity was not realized until 1981, when he was approached by television producer Ralph Edwards, the creator of “Truth or Consequences” and “This Is Your Life,” to officiate on a new show, loosely inspired by daytime legal dramas like “Divorce Court” but involving actual litigants arguing actual cases.

At his audition for “The People’s Court,” Wapner was asked to hear an argument between a petite woman and her boyfriend, a professional football player. When the diminutive plaintiff finished her testimony, Wapner saw the hulking defendant approaching her and unflinchingly instructed the man to sit down. The producers knew they had found their judge.

Joined by a host, Doug Llewelyn, and Rusty Burrell, a bailiff who had served in the real-life trials of Charles Manson and Patricia Hearst, Wapner deposed such unusual petitioners as a female oil wrestler who confessed to punching a competitor in the nose (she was ordered to pay $5,000 in damages, and later prosecuted in a criminal trial) and a woman who refused to pay an advertised reward for her missing dog to claimants who had brought her the dog’s remains (she was told she did not have to pay them).

Wapner became such a trusted figure that in 1986 he agreed to oversee the disbursement of a multimillion-dollar settlement awarded to a group of 141 families in the Fullerton, California, area, who sued various development groups and oil companies for not warning them that an abandoned refinery dump near their homes was potentially hazardous.

A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 1989 found that while two-thirds of those surveyed could not name any of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, 54 percent could identify Wapner as the judge of “The People’s Court.” That same year, a study published by the National Center for State Courts found that caseloads for small claims courts across the country had nearly doubled, and largely attributed that increase to the show’s influence.

“The People’s Court” ceased production in 1993, but Wapner returned to television in 1998 as the magistrate of “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court,” a pet-themed series on the Animal Planet cable channel.

By that time he had numerous competitors and imitators, including former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York, who hosted a resurrected “People’s Court” from 1997-99, as well as Judith Sheindlin, a former Manhattan family court judge, who since 1996 has presided over another television courtroom as “Judge Judy.” Sheindlin’s husband, Jerry, a former New York state Supreme Court judge, replaced Koch on “The People’s Court” and was in turn replaced in 2001 by Marilyn Milian, a former Florida Circuit Court judge, who has presided there ever since.

Sheindlin, whose show has long been one of the highest-rated on daytime television, has freely acknowledged the inspirational debt she owes to Wapner.

“All the judges watched Judge Wapner,” she told Larry King in 2005. “All America at one point or another watched Judge Wapner.” ( Wapner was not as kind to Sheindlin, criticizing her in interviews for her brusque, often angry courtroom demeanor.)

So many courtroom shows have been introduced in the wake of Wapner’s initial success that in 2008 the Daytime Emmy Awards created a separate category, outstanding legal/courtroom program.

Wapner is survived by his wife, Mickey; his daughter, Sarah; and his sons, Frederick, a judge on the Superior Court of Los Angeles, and David.

In addition to being a television star, Wapner was a vocal advocate for the California judiciary. In 2005, he appeared in a series of television commercials opposing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 77, which would have given the power to draw legislative and Congressional districts to a panel of three retired judges, and which voters rejected at the polls.

“Judges should decide legal disputes,” Wapner said in one of the ads. “Judges should not make law.”

In November 2009, Wapner observed his 90th birthday by returning to “The People’s Court” to try a case. That same month he received a rare honor for a judge: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.