Tom Roston

The Power List: Judge Judy Sheindlin
By Tom Roston
The Hollywood Reporter, December 4, 2010

Women in Entertainment 2010
Judge Judy Sheindlin
Television personality

It’s your fault,” says Judy Sheindlin, in a seething whisper
that could wilt a truck driver.

She shifts in her plush armchair, in a wood-paneled study adorned with images of judges at the heart of her Manhattan pied-a-terre, and thrusts her head forward, as if peering at some imaginary nincompoop.

The subject is personal responsibility; in this case, Sheindlin — better known as Judge Judy — is condemning people who blame lack of access to hospitals for not getting flu shots. She repeatedly makes sport of knuckleheads like these. With an eye roll, she mimics a drug dealer, saying, “My grandmother died, and that’s why I sell heroin.”
Anyone expecting the brusque, down-to-earth Sheindlin to be markedly different from her television persona is in for a surprise. From up close, one can see kindness in her brown eyes, but she is as uncompromising and scathing when discussing such dolts as she is on camera. The more apparent contrast is her lifestyle when the robe comes off.

With a $45 million-a-year CBS contract, she and her husband, Jerry — a former judge — have luxurious homes in Greenwich, Conn., and Naples, Fla., where they winter, as well as the New York apartment. Their life is made up of travel, boats (their yacht is dubbed Her Honor), private jets, artwork — and a very real relationship. “I’ve known her 30 years,” Jerry Sheindlin says, “and I’m still trying to understand her.”

Born Judith Blum, Sheindlin says her father thought she’d be a politician one day, but instead she went to law school and became in-house counsel for a beauty products company. The work was dull, so she found a job in the family court system. Then-New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to the bench in 1982. Jerry received his appointment, too, but money remained an issue until the 1990s, when they were well into their 50s. Judy bought lottery tickets every Wednesday. “I would tell Jerry, ‘It’s the greatest fantasy you can have for 10 bucks,’ ” she recalls.

In 1993, a Los Angeles Times article featured Sheindlin’s unsparing decisions and colorful locution in the courtroom. A 60 Minutes profile followed, and television producers were not far behind. In 1996, Judge Judy debuted, turning the unknown judge into a celebrity and multimillionaire.

Today, wearing an utterly unpretentious 20-year-old denim shirt, Sheindlin says the difference between TV Judy and the Real Judy is that on air she doesn’t filter herself. “People are fed up with excuses for bad behavior,” she says. “I say what they want to say. I beat up the bad guy.”

Nine million people watch Sheindlin every day, a number that surpassed that of The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009. The contract she signed two years ago runs through 2013 and represents an annual $20 million raise from her previous deal. (She’s coy about further extensions.) The actual workload Sheindlin has to earn this money — which, according to Forbes, makes her the 72nd-richest celebrity in Hollywood — is relatively light.

Judge Judy is shot on a set at the Sunset Bronson Studios in Los Angeles and taped over two- or three-day periods about every other week. Before the taping, Sheindlin is sent a docket of three dozen cases that she reviews. She flies in for the taping and flies out immediately afterward. The show is “run just like a courtroom,” says executive producer Randy Douthit, who reports that Sheindlin has a caring, maternal presence on set.

The nuances of maintaining several homes and being a TV star and matriarch of a sprawling family may be many, but Sheindlin’s life is surprisingly conventional. It includes two meals a day when she’s in Greenwich: breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien reading The New York Post and dinner — usually some form of chicken — at one of three favorite restaurants.

The Sheindlins have no agent, manager or lawyer. “We’ve been taking care of ourselves a long time before this,” she says.

“See the way she cringes?” Jerry says happily as he lunges in for a kiss. “I give her warmth.”