Judge Joseph Wapner, Calm, Thoughtful Voice of a Bygone Television Era, Has Died

Original 'People's Court' jurist bangs a final gavel

Judge Joseph Wapner receives a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on November 12, 2009 in Hollywood, California.
Judge Joseph Wapner receives a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame on November 12, 2009 in Hollywood, California. Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

Judge Joseph Wapner, longtime presiding judge of “The People’s Court,” died at age 97 today at his home in Los Angeles. I remember interviewing Judge Wapner in August 2000. He was already super old and that was almost 20 years ago, but the guy was sharp as a tack.

When I spoke to him, at the height of dot-com 1.0 hysteria, he was promoting something called Im-Ur.com, which had hired him to be a spokesman. It was a kind of journalism popularity contest where well-read essays on tons of subjects automatically migrate to better positioning on the site. I recall that the judge’s son, Fred Wapner, was in the middle of making aliyah and had somehow befriended the founder of IM-UR; Fred is now a judge himself in California.

I said, “Judge Wapner, one of my favorite cases from the old People’s Court was when after the trial, you spoke to some law students and one of them pointed out a logical error he thought you made. You said, ‘That’s a good point. I may have been wrong; I’ve been wrong before.'”

Judge Wapner said, “That was at USC, my alma mater – we did an hour special. Well, sure maybe I got it wrong. A judge is not a god or a king. He has the last word most of the time, but sometimes one makes mistakes. In the municipal small claims court in California, the defendant can appeal, but not the plaintiff. The defendant can appeal.”

He also told me that Pat Brown, who had appointed him, “wanted mostly people who had experience he thought was relevant. He was a very, very fine man, and a very fine governor, not just because he appointed me. An outstanding man. Gov Deukmejian, on the other hand, appointed an awful lot of prosecutors – including my son Fred. He was appointed to the municipal court by George Deukmejian, then ran without opposition to superior court.” Judge Wapner told me that Fred returned all his unused funds to contributors.

I remember Judge Wapner also putting up with a bunch of my questions related to my obsession with the Manson case. I misremembered that Wapner had been the original judge but had to recuse himself after Charlie rushed the bench and attacked him. So I asked him about that and he laughed and told me I had the whole thing wrong.

“No. But Rusty Burrell, my bailiff for all these years, was the bailiff in that case.” Rusty Burrell was also the bailiff in the Onion Field murder case and the Patty Hearst/SLA trial. “I was presiding judge over the entire court in LA County, but not THE judge of [the Manson] case.”

I also remember telling him that Alan Dershowitz had been asked if it was a shame that more people knew Judge Wapner than the chief justice of the United States. Dershowitz had said something to the effect “That’s because Wapner’s a better judge.”

Wapner told me, “Alan Dershowitz turned out to be a friend of mine. He was a weekend speaker at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute [a Jewish cultural center in Los Angeles]. I was president of that for six years.”

As one of the very first reality show stars, Judge Wapner ruled his court room like a regal magistrate, and the quiet friendship between him and his Rusty was one of the small pleasures an out-of-work, out-of-hope viewer could count on. He wouldn’t slag Judge Judy or any of the other imitators and seemed to take pride in their success, even as they coarsened the dialogue and sharpened the tone.

Judge Wapner left me with a final thought, of the variety Harvey Levin perfected with the People’s Court, years before he went on to found TMZ.

Judge Wapner told me that at heart, everything in court was about money. “People say, ‘I’m only suing for the principle of the thing,’ and I reply that I can’t give you principle – only money.'” Judge Joseph Wapner, Calm, Thoughtful Voice of a Bygone Television Era, Has Died