Judge Wapner of Peoples Court ponders justice after bombings

Always in charge, even sharply curt at times, Judge Joseph Wapner was unhinged. Tuesday morning's bombings in Israel left the tough "People's Court" judge shaken up. "It's frightening," he said.

Wapner, 76, had reason to be frightened. His son David lives in Jerusalem with his family. At the time of the Tel Aviv suicide bombing, David was just blocks away from the Dizengoff Center.

Moments after talking with his son, the judge temporarily departed from the intended subject of the interview — his speaking engagement Friday, March 8 at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame — to discuss the situation in the Middle East.

"It's a terribly frustrating thing. It's tragic. We're so close to peace, yet now it's going to be put on hold," said Wapner, without a trace of his trademark hardness.

"My grandson is learning that killing can stop a peace process. He's learning to be frightened."

For Wapner, concepts like terrorism and revenge fly in the face of his life's mission: serving the law. Before his recruitment for televised duty in small-claims court, Wapner served on the bench for 20 years in Los Angeles County. Both of his sons practice law, as did his father.

Stereotypes of Jewish lawyers may be odious at times, but according to the world's most famous judge, Jews and law go together like bagels and whitefish. In fact, his topic at Peninsula Temple Sholom will be "Torah, the Foundation of Justice."

The connection, he says, "goes way back, I guess. The Jewish people are imbued with the idea of justice." As is often his want, Wapner quoted Deuteronomy: "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue."

This judge's relentless pursuit of justice can still be seen on USA Cable, where the popular 12-season show is in reruns.

Wapner admits the small-claims cases he judged involved only basic law; rug cleaning disputes, problematic neighbor noise, fender benders and dog bites often took center stage. Still, he contends the show provided viewers with an education about law.

"People tell me constantly that they were learning a great deal from watching the program. They not only learned law, but how to present a case in court if they had to. People would watch me to prepare."

Education has played an even larger role in Wapner's life since "The People's Court" recessed for good. He is now president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Ventura County, where students of all ages learn about Jewish art, culture and religion.

He said he and his wife, active members of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, are "just Joe and Mickey, regular human beings. We don't play big shots," which is one reason the judge agreed to speak in Burlingame, at the temple where his son Fred was married almost two years ago.

"It's no big deal. It was the right and proper thing to do."

In court however, he admitted it's sometimes a less than warm attitude that yields the best results in a search for justice.

Yet the severity that scared many a litigant into embarrassed submission was not evidenced in his early morning phone demeanor.

"Some people think I'm tough," he said. "I like to think of myself as just being fair, or trying to be. What the public perceives as tough is just a way of getting the facts, getting to the truth."