Judith Sheindlin, familiarly known as television's Judge Judy, fixes the lawbreaker with her trademark brace-yourself-buddy glare.
"You're drinking my tea?" she says to Jerry Sheindlin, her husband of 29 years, who's lunching alongside her during a production break on her court show. Not bothering to appeal, he stops pouring from her cup into his and returns the property to its rightful owner.
For Judy Sheindlin, marking her 10th season as the star of one TV's top-rated syndicated shows, watched by 10 million people daily, enforcing justice is a full-time job. Her grandchildren may enjoy some slack; all others, watch out.
That unforgiving approach to small-claims disputes culled from courts nationwide is what draws viewers. When Phil McGraw barks at an errant spouse or parent on "Dr. Phil," he's reflecting the influence of Sheindlin's decade of TV toughness.
"Accept responsibility for what you do in everything," the former New York family court judge said in an interview. She was referring to her own expectation of how judges should behave and, in a more expansive view, the world.
At one point, she interrupts herself to search her purse for a stash of newspaper clippings, reports on a series of violent deaths of New York children that have raised questions about city government oversight.
"All these articles, you know who they blame? They blame the Administration for Children's Services. Now, I'm not absolving them. ... But that's not where the fault is, really," she said. "The people who are supposed to protect children are their parents."
Unshakable mantraHer unshakable mantra is personal responsibility. It's a position that played well when her show began and may be even more beguiling in a time vexed by the forces of war and terror. The real power is yours, Sheindlin tells us; who wouldn't want to believe?
The 63-year-old who reminds you she successfully raised five children and stepchildren will not brook excuses from those she sees as skirting their duties.
A defendant who faced her recently found out how that applied to him. The college student, who stiffed a roommate for rent after an injury forced him out of a good-paying valet job, told Sheindlin he had no choice.
The judge did some quick math. If he had taken a minimum-wage job, say at a fast-food restaurant, and worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week, he could have met most of his financial obligation to the roomie.
"She's not related to you. She doesn't love you like your mother does," Sheindlin told him, delivering her lecture in the pitiless tone so at odds with the visual: A petite woman, dwarfed by a realistic courtroom setting, and with her black robe softened by a dainty lace collar.
Afterward, the defendant weighed in for the camera. "I was made to look like a fool" and a deadbeat, he wailed — while the show picked up the tab for the roughly $2,000 judgment, as it always does.
Petri Hawkins Byrd, who served as her bailiff in New York and cuts an imposing figure in the same role on TV, admires Sheindlin as "blunt, witty, sharp as a tack" and for her refusal to accept any nonsense. Would he want to come before her in court?
"Hell, no," he said, laughing. "And I don't advise any of my friends to do so. Not if they want to maintain their love of the judicial system."
A star, from the heart
Sheindlin was scheduled to receive a special Valentine Day's treat: her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Also, she garnered a Daytime Emmy Awards nomination, her 10th overall, for the upcoming April ceremony.
A big air kiss came her way last year when her name was floated by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and a newspaper columnist as a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The suggestions may have been ironic but she likely could have found more public favor than Harriet Miers.
Sheindlin's popularity earns her a reported $30 million yearly. She travels to work by private jet from the Naples, Fla., home she shares with her husband, a retired judge who also did his time in a TV courtroom with "People's Court." She flies in every other week to Los Angeles for three days of taping.
While new judges crowd into the TV courtroom, including "Judge Alex" and the upcoming "Judge Maria Lopez," Sheindlin remains the queen bee with ratings that put her in the company of top syndicated performers including Oprah Winfrey and "Wheel of Fortune."
"I think Judge Judy is, like Oprah, sort of the star of her genre," said analyst Stacey Lynn Koerner of New York-based media agency Initiative. "She lays it on the line and she doesn't let you get away with anything. ... She stands out as an ethical voice that speaks to the common man."
Judge as tyrant
Some uncommon voices, however, have been raised against her. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz declaimed her for presenting the image of a judge as tyrant. A New York Times column recently accused Sheindlin of using the law as a bludgeon against the underclass: "...the lower a party's apparent status, the harsher Judge Judy is free to be."
Sheindlin once coyly parried Dershowitz, in print, by joking that she should have gone to the prom with him. Randy Douthit, the show's executive producer and director, takes on the allegation of class warfare.
"I think she's an equal opportunity abuser," Douthit said of Sheindlin.
Because the show draws from small-claims courts in which judgments generally are limited to no more than $5,000, cases tend to involve the less affluent. But the show aims to be as "upscale as possible," Douthit said, avoiding Jerry Springeresque elements.
As "Judge Judy" faces new competition, including court shows vying for Hispanic viewers, Koerner predicts that its ratings and enviable time slots, often preceding local afternoon newscasts, are secure. News is profitable for TV stations and they demand a reliable performer as lead-in.
"Her fans are her fans. Even if they do want to see any of these new shows, they're not going to leave her show," Koerner said.
But will Sheindlin leave them? Her unexpected second career has given her "a wonderful 10 years" and she's contracted for four more, through the 2009-10 season. Beyond that, she's unsure.
"The truth is, you're really supposed to know when to say goodbye in any job you're in. I hope that I'll know."