A Day At The Real People’s Court

Weekday afternoons at four, the leisure class is locked in front of the television screen, absorbing the profundities of one Judge Joseph Wapner-the black-robed, white-maned star of “The People’s Court.”

The limousine owner is filing suit against the defendant for damages incurred after she consumed freely of the liquor cabinet within the vehicle and threw up. She denies being drunk, but admits that she communicated with the limo driver via the in-car phone and said, “the worst has happened”

Wapner retires to his chambers and returns with his verdict: judgment to the plaintiff of $121. Next case, please. And for this instant justice, Wapner probably knocks; down something in the neighborhood of six figures.

A man like W.J. “Jack” Richburg must sometimes wonder about the fairness of that. Richburg has been presiding over a Justice of the Peace court in a sub-courthouse in South Dallas for fourteen years. (His father. Bill, held the post for twenty-eight years prior to that.) And the human drama that unfolds in Rich-burg’s court each day is equal to anything that Wapner’s producers can muster.

Richburg hears disputes of the small claims category-evictions, repossessions, family difficulties, neighborhood feuds. On the day that we attended this South Dallas people’s court, a middle-aged woman approaches the bench. Her son, she says, who is already oft probation, refuses to seek work. She wants to kick him out of the house-but hopes the judge might offer him a motivational message before matters reach that point. “Ma’am,” he says, “I won’t go out there and raise your son. I’m not in the business of lecturing folks.”

Richburg says the woman must tell her son to vacate the premises, in writing, and make a copy of her bum’s rush manifesto for herself. If the son is not gone in three days, she should come back to court. That will start a chain of events that will eventually send a constable to the home, and he, Richburg tells the woman, will put the son out bag and baggage.

Two more litigants. Fender bender dispute. Richburg leaves the bench and walks out into the courthouse parking lot to survey the body damage on both cars. “If they can’t bring the evidence to court, then you bring the court to the evidence,” the judge says. The litigants exchange hot words in the parking lot. Richburg orders them back inside. It’s fairly obvious to the judge that both parties are lying, but he resolves things as fairly as he can, then proceeds to the case of a young woman who is attempting to prevent a music store from repossessing her piano.

“After thirteen years, I’ve noticed that folks’ problems are about the same,” Richburg says during a recess. “More evictions when the economy’s bad. We might be near war in the Middle East, have a crisis in the Gulf and all, but to these folks, the real problems of the world are the ones that unfold out in that courtroom.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if I ever watch ’The People’s Court,’” Richburg says. “Hell, why should I when I deal with it every day?”


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