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Playing judge and Judy

Judge Judy Sheindlin presides over a case as her bailiff Petri Hawkins Byrd listens on the set of her syndicated show
Judge Judy Sheindlin presides over a case as her bailiff Petri Hawkins Byrd listens on the set of her syndicated show "Judge Judy." (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Lynn Elber Associated Press

Judith Sheindlin, familiarly known as television’s Judge Judy, fixes the offender with her trademark brace-yourself-buddy glare.

“You’re drinking my tea?” she says to Jerry Sheindlin, her husband of 29 years, who’s lunching alongside her during a production break on her show.

Not bothering to appeal, he stops pouring from her cup into his and returns the property to its rightful owner.

For Judy Sheindlin, marking her 10th season as the star of one TV’s top-rated syndicated shows, watched by 10 million people daily, enforcing justice is a full-time job.

Her grandchildren may enjoy some slack; all others, watch out.

That unforgiving approach to small-claims disputes culled from courts nationwide is what draws viewers. When Phil McGraw barks at an errant spouse or parent on “Dr. Phil,” he’s reflecting the influence of Sheindlin’s decade of TV toughness.

The former New York family court judge’s unshakable mantra is personal responsibility. The 63-year-old who reminds you she successfully raised five children and stepchildren will not brook excuses from those she sees as skirting their duties.

A defendant who faced her recently found that out. The college student, who stiffed a roommate for rent after an injury forced him out of a good-paying valet job, told Sheindlin he had no choice.

The judge did some quick math. If he had taken a minimum-wage job, say at a fast-food restaurant, and worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, he could have met most of his financial obligation to the roomie.

“She’s not related to you. She doesn’t love you like your mother does,” Sheindlin told him, delivering her lecture in the pitiless tone so at odds with her visual image: a petite woman, dwarfed by a realistic courtroom setting, with her black robe softened by a dainty lace collar.

Afterward, the defendant weighed in for the camera. “I was made to look like a fool,” he wailed – while the show picked up the tab for the roughly $2,000 judgment, as it always does.

Petri Hawkins Byrd, who served as Sheindlin’s bailiff in New York and cuts an imposing figure in the same role on TV, admires her as “blunt, witty, sharp as a tack.”

Would he want to come before her in court?

“Hell, no,” he says, laughing. “And I don’t advise any of my friends to do so. Not if they want to maintain their love of the judicial system.”

This week, Sheindlin received a special Valentine Day’s treat: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She recently garnered a Daytime Emmy Awards nomination, her 10th overall, for the upcoming April ceremony.

Last year, her name was floated by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and a newspaper columnist as a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Sheindlin’s popularity earns her a reported $30 million yearly. She travels to work by private jet from the Naples, Fla., home she shares with her husband, a retired judge who also did his time in a TV courtroom with “People’s Court.” She flies in every other week to Los Angeles for three days of taping.

While new judges crowd into the TV courtroom, including “Judge Alex” and the upcoming “Judge Maria Lopez,” Sheindlin remains the queen bee with ratings that put her in the company of top syndicated performers including Oprah Winfrey and “Wheel of Fortune.”

But not everyone is a fan. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz complained that she presented the image of a judge as tyrant. A New York Times column recently accused Sheindlin of using the law as a bludgeon against the underclass: “…the lower a party’s apparent status, the harsher Judge Judy is free to be.”

Sheindlin once coyly parried Dershowitz, in print, by joking that she should have gone to the prom with him.

Randy Douthit, the show’s executive producer and director, takes on the allegation of class warfare.

“I think she’s an equal opportunity abuser,” Douthit says.

Because the show draws from small-claims courts in which judgments generally are limited to no more than $5,000, cases tend to involve the less affluent. But the show aims to be as “upscale as possible,” Douthit says, avoiding Jerry Springer-style elements.

Sheindlin says her unexpected second career has given her “a wonderful 10 years.” She’s contracted for four more, through the 2009-10 season. Beyond that, she’s unsure.

“The truth is, you’re really supposed to know when to say goodbye in any job you’re in,” she says. “I hope that I’ll know.”

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