Disorder in the court Years ago, I was hired by a bankrupt company to appear in nine California Small Claims courts. I collected money from deadbeat customers - not a pleasant task. But I won all my cases.

Of course, two-thirds of the defendants failed to appear. But when the other defendants appeared, I won by presenting solid evidence, showing respect for the judge, and avoiding any display of anger. Judges usually weighed the evidence carefully and issued a verdict - via U.S.mail - within two weeks. I became the Perry Mason of California Small Claims courts.

Switch to the present. Recently laid up by a bout of flu, I decided to watch some afternoon television shows. Some were TV court programs. Most featured average Joes and Josephines, duking it out during their 15 minutes of fame.

I was astonished at how many such shows aired and their exceptionally high ratings. Why, I wondered, would so many Americans find those "toss 'em to the lions" shows so attractive? Here's what I discovered.

(1) Typical cases for litigation involve squabbles over "loans," "gifts," "rent," "loose" living arrangements, or issues like "you took my money and went on a cruise." (2) Plaintiffs and defendants must agree that all decisions are final and binding (though some have been subsequently challenged). (3) The "disorder in the court" is wondrous to behold.

I wondered how any of those "cases" ever reached a judge. And - just who are those judges, anyway?

Leading the robed pack is Judge Judy Scheindlin, who insists that all plaintiffs and defendants call her "Your Honor." She's the judge viewers love to love or love to hate. Some say her show is a Roman arena - a sort of Gunsmoke showdown.

But many viewers consider Judy witty, intelligent, and hardcore. They enjoy the way Judy eats the "California flakes" for breakfast, berating them for their stupidity, bad manners, and poor wardrobes. A respected Brooklyn-born judge with 25 years experience, Scheindlin cares about kids and shows respect for the family.

Viewers must like it when Judy lifts her bangs and asks, "Is 'Stupid' written on my forehead?" Moreover, only Judge Judy, among all those gavel gluttons, can get away with wearing a robe with lace trim.

I also watched Judge Joe E. Brown - who grew up on tough streets and plays it tough in the courtroom. He's a bore and a bully.

Judge Mills Lane - also a bully behind the bench - is a former Marine and moonlighting professional boxing referee. Lane likes to yell, shake his gavel, and curse a lot. A former district court judge in Reno, Lane captured media attention when he disqualified boxer Mike Tyson for biting Evander Hollyfield's ear in 1997. Lane admits he's in it for the big bucks.

Divorce Court Judge Mablean Ephriam usually proclaims, "I'm the boss and I make the rules." Her show's banner tells viewers it's "where real couples deal with real lives." Well, okay. But there's a lot of anger and raucous voices, issued from people who are not model citizens. Divorce Court has a trailer-park focus and Judge Ephriam takes a low-road approach.

Others among the Judge Judy clones include Judge Glenda Hatchett and Judge Greg Mathis. For variety, watch Judge Jerry, who provides a therapy approach. Or tune in to Judge Larry Joe Doherty on "Texas Justice" (probably an oxymoron).

Few TV judges appear consistently rational and willing to navigate a law book. So - I wonder - why are those programs so popular?

I think many television viewers actually enjoy the stupidity and hostility of those disarranged dimwits. The edited and orchestrated anger of the shows creates a rubber-meets-the-road scenario that must make many viewers feel superior and secure. Apparently, ferocity turns them on.

Although the bench bullies do offer a few bite-sized lessons in the law, viewers probably savor the humiliation endured by the lackluster, low-life litigants, slugging it out on television. Viewers make merry - relishing their voyeuristic views of the puzzling problems of bird-brained bourgeoisie who might just as well appear on the Jerry Springer show.

If you're fast with the remote and equipped with a TV Guide, you can watch such fiascos all day. Now - that's entertainment, American style.

If I get the flu again, I won't watch any more of those shows, even though they do make me feel exceptionally bright and focused. Yes, indeed. I'm still convinced that the universe will never run out of two things - hydrogen and stupidity.

Observer correspondent Robert Brake can be reached at oobear@pacifier.com

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