If you spend your daylight hours away from television, you might not have heard of Texas Justice, the syndicated reality judge show in which a Texas wise man, Larry Joe Doherty, hears small-claims cases and delivers folksy verdicts.
I like Texas Justice, but it’s got secrets. The first clue comes in the opening graphics: diaphanous-looking images, layered like a magician’s scarves. First a map of Texas, then the face of presiding “judge” Doherty in a cowboy hat, then a Georgian courthouse superimposed over a Lone Star flag. Things fade, and Doherty emerges again, hatted, on horseback, wagging a finger at the audience. Up rises a quick series of images: a skyscraper, a seal of the city of Dallas, longhorn cattle, a foot in a stirrup, the scales of justice, and finally Larry Joe one more time, behind a judge’s bench, pounding a gavel to the camera. BAM.
Texas Justice—which is on twice a day on Fox in New York—gives a fair sampling of the huge number of American interpersonal conflicts that are priced at $5,000 or less. Just as in the courtrooms of the legendary TV judges—Wapner, Brown, Mathis, Judy, Jerry, the ailing Mills Lane—on Texas Justice you hear the complaints and excuses of swindlers, baby sitters, car dealers, kept men, cat breeders, tenants, and, above all, debtors. But Larry Joe’s shtick is even cornier and more stylized than his judicial predecessors. And more important, his interpretation of human nature is far more liberal.
Like all daily shows, Texas Justice relies on rituals. All rise. The first line goes to the lovable-thug bailiff, William, who is paid chiefly to roll his eyes at how rude people can be. Pan over to Larry Joe, who saunters into the room in robe and jeans. “Thank’ee, William. Y’all please be seated.” He then turns to the plaintiff and lobs him or her the opener: “So, Jeremy, why’re you takin’ your grandma’s boyfriend to court today?” At which point Jeremy (or Shawn or Dave) gives a first line that usually amounts to, “Because he’s an asshole.” Whereupon the defendant, who can keep quiet no longer, charges, “That’s a baldfaced lie.” And so it very briefly goes, Springer-style, until Larry Joe pounds his gavel, threatens to have William interfere, and then turns again to the plaintiff, who has suddenly cooled off, for a more mature rendering of events.
The events themselves are, generally, collagist, stimulating, and thick with pathos. But unlike Just-the-Facts Wapner, Larry Joe doesn’t care much about what actually happened. He wastes little time reviewing evidence; he has no illusion that he’s going to uncover truth in a 12-minute TV segment. Instead, he likes broad strokes, back story, outbursts, impressionism, and catharsis. In his questioning, he looks for signs of affection and agreement: the way ex-friends still care about each other; how a demanding dad is worried about his own alcoholism; the ways a bride knows she owes the caterer the money he’s asking for—she’s just ashamed to say she doesn’t have it. He orchestrates things so that each case imparts a small emotional lesson (“be kind,” “lighten up”).
With 20 cases a week, Texas Justice has time to define its enemy: In a nutshell, it’s the smug, doubt-free voice that we all use in arguments. “I believe she’s jealous because I have a two-story home.” “I wouldn’t sell her anything that was raggedy.” “She didn’t even have the decency to tell me that my kitty had passed!”
This universal litigant is an excellent target for the ideology of Larry Joe, a natural humanist. Forget the particularity of the law; Larry Joe considers plaintiff and defendant alike as lovable sinners, poor wretches who deserve, above all, informed and kindhearted attention. He’s like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who dodges the rigors of real justice by making a plea for mercy in a world of contracts and bonds. For Larry Joe, as for Portia, the truth lies in small emotional tells. And day after day he metes out, in units of very small cash awards (in which differences are often split), the simple truth that life need not be winner-take-all. And, in the absence of consensus or peace, he praises the room’s rowdiness: “This is your day to get to talk about each other. I’m going to give you your day in court.”
Your day in court—and, lest it be lost on anyone, your day on television. Larry Joe puts on trial the founding motivation for all TV gavel shows, and for that matter, all reality TV:the desire to be on television. His light treatment of evidence, which seems sloppy and irresponsible at first, becomes, as you watch, part of his larger agenda: to determine, more than anything else, why these people are standing before him. He doesn’t dismiss TV shouters as greedy, exhibitionistic, or hungry for fame. Rather, he enforces this overarching verdict: A morally confused person, i.e., any person, might go on television for the same reason others go before raging bulls, or their maker, or a priest: to make their case, to get a hearing, and to walk out with something like an answer.Even if that answer is: “You’re human.”
While entertaining and consoling, however, this free-form approach has serious drawbacks. Larry Joe, like the sham judge Portia, can often seem hypocritical. (If he’s so humble, why’s he on television?) And unlike other judge shows, Texas Justice takes place in a courtroom of dubious certification. In the show’s credits, Doherty is identified as “Larry Joe Doherty, esq.” Clearly, he’s a lawyer, not a judge. Moreover, Larry Joe never calls the show’s participants “litigants.” They don’t formally swear in, and they don’t even officially agree to “have their disputes settled here,” in the memorable words of The People’s Court. Which is appropriate: After all, the cases aren’t being settled; only their troubled spirits are.
The menacing opening sequence of Texas Justice is misleading. In TV terms, Texas Justice isn’t a judge show; it’s a psych talk show. Larry Joe adjudicates disputes the way Oprah used to—with sympathy and the assurance that, yes, he hears you. This type of justice is not Solomonic; it may not even be “justice.” It’s pussycat Christian forgiveness. Texas Justice is fun to watch—but it may not be good for the rough reputation of the nation’s second-biggest state. It’s not too hard to mess with Texas when Larry Joe Doherty’s presiding.