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.”
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.
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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.”