Judge Joseph Wapner, of ‘The People’s Court’ Fame, Perishes at 97

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Retired California Judge Joseph A. Wapner, whose affable yet no-nonsense style of resolving disputes on TV’s “The People’s Court” made him famous and helped spawn an entire genre of courtroom-based reality television with fellow jurists, such as “Judge Judy,” “Judge Joe Brown,” and “Judge Mills Lane,” perished on February 26 at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was 97.

According to his family, Wapner died at home in his sleep. He was hospitalized last week with respiratory issues and had been placed under home hospice care. He died of natural causes.

The silver-haired retired jurist rose to fame as the fair-minded judge who presided over the syndicated half-hour show that would become a ratings juggernaut for claimants who opted to turn their private arbitration of small claims cases into highly engrossing TV fodder. Wapner, who perished at 97, ruled over “The People’s Court” for 12 years (1981-1993) and taped more than 2,000 episodes of the series. During this time, the legal eagle established himself as the first reality TV personality and justified his rationale for doing the show in the first place, which was to enlighten as many people as possible “in the judicial process of arbitration and how to conduct themselves in court.”

In addition to Wapner, Rusty Burrell, a bailiff who had served in the real-life trials of Helter Skelter madman Charles Manson and Stockholm Syndrome heiress Patricia Hearst. and host Doug Llewelyn, a former TV correspondent, rounded out the on-air team that helped petitioners air their grievances, come to a resolution, and interviewed the parties about the final decision.


When production of “The People’s Court” ceased in 1993, the likable and engaging magistrate returned to television five years later as the force behind “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court,” which was a legal series involving pet-based disputes and broadcast on the Animal Planet cable channel. This series ran for 2 seasons (1998-2000). Similar to “The People’s Court,” Wapner was also assisted by his longtime sidekick and bailiff Burrell, who also worked as an occasional actor as well as a retired sheriff’s deputy.

In 1997, a new incarnation of “The People’s Court” was resurrected after a four-year hiatus with former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York at the bench from 1997 to 1999. Koch’s tenure was followed by Judith Sheindlin’s (“Judge Judy”) husband, Jerry, a former New York State Supreme Court judge, who reigned over “The People’s Court” from 1999 until he was replaced in 2001 by Marilyn Milian, a former Florida Circuit Court judge, who has presided over the series ever since.

Prior to attaining fame on “The People’s Court,” Wapner, who was born in November 1919 and a native of Los Angeles, graduated from Hollywood High School in 1937, where he briefly dated future film star Lana Turner. Four years later, he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Southern California. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was wounded by sniper fire on Cebu Island in the Philippines. This incident left him with shrapnel in his left foot. As a result, he won the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his bravery in combat and was honorably discharged in 1945.

Wapner earned his law degree from the University of Southern California in 1948 and worked in private practice as a lawyer for more than a decade until Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Then, in 1961, Judge Wapner was elected presiding judge of the city’s vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised some 200 fellow judges. The true significance of this role was revealed by the jurist in a 1982 interview when he informed his interviewer that he was the only Jewish judge elected to the position. He served in this capacity for the next two decades.

Judge Joseph Wapner, of TV’s “The People’s Court” fame, perished on February 26 at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was 97. The jurist died of natural causes and is survived by two sons, David and Frederick, a judge on the Superior Court of Los Angeles, his wife of 70 years, Mickey, two daughters-in-law, four grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. His success was capped off in November 2009, when Judge Wapner observed his 90th birthday by returning to “The People’s Court” to try a case. That same month, he also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh

Washington Post–Joseph Wapner, judge on ‘The People’s Court,’ dies at 97
CNN–Judge Joseph Wapner of ‘The People’s Court’ dead at 97
Detroit Free Press–‘People’s Court’ judge Joseph Wapner dies at 97
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