Judith Sheindlin has not donned a lace collar or black robe in two weeks. Since the final taping of Judge Judy in early April, the prosecutor turned TV personality has been trying her best to relax at the Naples, Florida, home she keeps with her husband, Jerry.
Her eponymous syndicated court show made its no-nonsense star, with her eye roll for the ages, a cultural icon and, at a reported $47 million a season, TV’s highest-paid host. Now, after a 25-season run, its final episodes will air this year. But court is not adjourned. At 78, Sheindlin is making the segue to streaming. She and her gavel return to Los Angeles in late summer to begin production on Judy Justice, an arbitration-based reality show for Amazon’s ad-supported IMDb TV. There, the onetime Manhattan family court judge wants to assure her loyal viewers, all 10 million who still tune in every Monday through Friday, that she has no intention of reinventing the wheel. “Look, I do what I do,” says Sheindlin, referring to both her person and procedure. “So within the confines of me doing what I do, we’ll be changing some of the things around me. But I’m not becoming a ballet dancer.”
Speaking over the phone in late April — she does not care for Zoom — Sheindlin, THR‘s Unscripted TV Player of the Year, opened up about her thoughts on retirement, the fascination surrounding her public salary and what annoys her most about the American legal system.
I once heard you say that you used to clean the bathroom after work to feel like you’d accomplished something. At what point in your career did you stop doing that?
Never. When I’ve had a frustrating day at work, which I do occasionally, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to get out the silver polish and do some frames around the house or find an old pair of earrings and clean them up — even if I never wear them again. I like to see things tied up in a bow. Perhaps that’s the reason for ending the show after 25 years.
That’s also how long Oprah Winfrey did her talk show.
Nobody says, “Oh, they did that show 27 years.” That’s not a number! Plus, it’s always good to leave everybody wanting a little bit more.
You famously used to negotiate your Judge Judy deal by presenting a sealed envelope containing your desired salary to your CBS executive at the end of a lunch. Did you do the same with Jeff Bezos?
No, I did not. (Laughs.) Without giving you specifics, because that’s a little unseemly, my compensation has not been a secret. It’s been out there for a long time — not by me, but it got out there and had its own life. So, the folks at Amazon understood what the parameters were. There was no issue.
It may be unseemly, but your salary and your leverage are such a big part of your lore. What do you think of that?
The People’s Court, they’ve had several judges. The Tonight Show has had several hosts. But I Love Lucy only had one Lucille Ball. So, almost 20 years ago, I told the company that I worked for this: “I want to be more of a partner. Don’t treat me as a paid employee. I could make this show without you — I created a deal where I could do that — but you can’t make it without me. I can take Judy Sheindlin anywhere else. And good luck with you if you can find somebody else. Otherwise, let’s share the gift that this program has brought to both of us.” I don’t think that there’s anything unreasonable about that.
Did you give any consideration to retiring?
I’m not tired. I don’t play golf or tennis. I have no desire to learn how to play mahjong, chess or checkers. I know what I like to do. Why, at my stage in life, would I try to find something else when I already know what I like? And this isn’t a 9-to-5 job. I’ve still got the time to see the children I love, the grandchildren who are growing up very fast and the cute mate who I still get a kick out of.
You’ve let your hair down, literally, in recent years. Some viewers have been vocal in their disapproval of your new style. How do you feel about your appearance being so widely discussed?
I thought it was the message, not the look of the messenger. I didn’t even think people looked that closely anymore. They look to see what Halle Berry looks like, but that was never my thing. I mean, I was cute but not a knockout. People stopped whistling at me as I passed a construction site decades ago. And what happens when you reach a certain age is that people say, “Oh, she looks better than I thought she did!” or, “Considering, she looks OK.” There’s always that qualification.
But people are accustomed to seeing you look a certain way … hair up, black robe, lace collar.
It’s sort of funny. “How could she change her hair? It’s an iconic hairdo.” No, it’s not. It’s a lot of goop and teasing and product and fussing around by somebody else. This is so much easier. And as each hour in every day we have becomes more precious, the less you want to spend time patshkeing over the way you look. Do you know how to spell “patshkeing”? You’ll have to look it up. It’s a Yiddish term. It means messing around.
What can you tell me about the new show?
We have to deliver a certain number of episodes by December, and then Amazon will make the determination how and when they want to release this show. I don’t know. Give me a robe and a case, and I’ll do my job. I had wonderful people producing and directing the Judge Judy program, and a couple of them will be following me to Amazon. That will keep my life on a steady keel.
In moving from one era of your career to the next, how much do you think about legacy?
Listen, you’ve got to be in it to win it — like the lottery. One of the things that family court judges worry about, at least the ones that have a soul, is that you’re always taking a risk. You take a risk when you return a baby to a mother who had been a crackhead. She’s been in a program and social services says she’s OK and ready to have her child back. But you never want to see that baby on the front page of a newspaper having been abandoned, abused or killed by that parent. You’ve dodged a bullet if you can end your career in the family court having dodged something like that.
Tell me about a time where your own moral code came into conflict with the law as it’s written.
Well, [the law] is supposed to be even-handed. You and I both know that’s not true. And because you’re dealing with lives, you have to rely on common sense and sometimes your gut. Did you see the case that I did with a little white dog?
I think so. Remind me.
This man, who had a dog for five years, said his dog was stolen from his yard. The defendant said she had the dog for over a year, said she had a bill of sale. This dog was in the back of the courtroom, so I had it brought up and said, “Just put the dog down.” The dog went right over to the man. Now, that’s not law. But I know that when my husband and I come in, my dog runs to me. I’m the one who feeds her. She’s my dog. So I knew — at least I hoped — that the dog would know who it loved. You’ve got to be flexible.
What do you see as the biggest flaw in the American legal system right now?
The length of time that it takes for people to get a conclusion to whatever is interfering with their life. Civil or criminal, cases take too long — primarily as a result of lazy judges or lawyers who have a financial interest in keeping a case going.
Were you surprised by the expediency of the Derek Chauvin trial?
That’s what happens when you have a movie. It wasn’t an issue as to what happened. And the judge, I think he was pretty straight-up. He didn’t duck and cover. The media wasn’t going to allow any delay, and rightfully so. The country wanted a resolution. It’s a different age now. If it’s a homicide, a robbery, a burglary … you often have it on video.
As someone who’s openly defied the “PC police” throughout her career, what is your take on the trend of people being shamed for past comments?
If you’re a bad person, if you’ve done something wrong, you’ve got to be prepared to pay the piper. And there are people who have done just that. They’ve paid the price with their good name, their footprint. That’s a good thing. But to have a fear of speaking your opinion, for fear of being put on somebody’s list and canceled? It’s a frightening place for America to be. And you’re right. I’m not a big fan of the PC police. Is it PC to say to people who are 19 or 23 years old, have no job, no prospects and six children, “Find something else to do with that organ”? No. But where I come from, I’ve seen the ravages of that kind of neglect.
There’s been a lot of talk about expanding the Supreme Court. What do you think of that?
It’s a dumb idea. We’ve worked brilliantly in this country with the Supreme Court exactly the way it is. Changing it makes absolutely no sense to me, except politically. As vacancies become available, the next crop may represent one view and it may not. Judges very often become chameleons when they take the bench.
I wouldn’t consider you a chameleon.
I’m not a chameleon. My message has been the same for half a century: “Pick up your trash. Don’t expect me to pick up after you.” This country goes to the left and to the right but eventually comes back to the center. You just have to hope that you can withstand those swings, that you can get back to a reasonable place where everybody has the opportunity to realize the American dream like me.
You don’t strike me as a crier. How did you feel shooting your last episode of Judge Judy?
I didn’t feel all that emotional. I wasn’t teary. I felt gratified that I had completed that part of my journey and done it respectably. It was just the end of the day, the end of the job. I cleaned the bathroom, and the bathroom is sparkling.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.