Why TV judge Jerry Springer supports court-packing: 'It's important to have a Supreme Court that recognizes America's values'

Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·14 min read
Jerry Springer takes the bench in 'Judge Jerry' (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Jerry Springer takes the bench in 'Judge Jerry' (Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

With Senate Republicans likely to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement on the Supreme Court this week, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will face renewed pressure to expand the court’s ranks should he defeat President Donald Trump on Nov. 3. Court expansion — or, as some call it, court-packing — is a controversial topic that the vice president has so far avoided discussing in-depth, to the frustration of some of his supporters.

But if Biden decides to move ahead, he’ll have the support of at least one famous judge: Jerry Springer. “I originally didn’t think it was a good idea,” the talk show host-turned-presiding justice of NBC’s syndicated courtroom series, Judge Jerry, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “But now I’m OK with extending the Supreme Court if that’s what it takes to guarantee the ideal America.”

For Springer, the argument in favor of expanding is a clear-cut case of balancing more the conservative values Barrett is expected to favor in cases involving abortion and voting versus the more progressive values favored by majorities of the country in national polls. “On the one hand, you have the value of having nine justices for so much of our history,” Springer explains. “But I balance that against the value of, for the next two generations, women aren’t going to have control over their own bodies and we’re not going to enforce the right of everyone to vote. When I balance those values against the value of saying, ‘At least we kept it at nine,’ it’s not a balance of moral equivalency. It’s important to have a Supreme Court that recognizes America’s values of saying all people are created equal.”

Like the rest of the country, Springer — who was a politician and journalist before getting into daytime television in the 1990s with The Jerry Springer Show — closely followed Barrett’s confirmation hearings and took issues with several of her comments, including her description of herself as an “originalist” when it comes to interpretations of the Constitution. “That theory makes absolutely no sense, and I’ll tell you why: the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was a political process, and everyone had different intentions and different ideas. It was weeks and weeks of bargaining and negotiating, so if you want to decipher the original intent, you’re not being intellectually honest, because there was no single idea. They all compromised! Maybe you can figure out one person’s intention, but there is no way you can figure out the collective invention.”

“Also,” Springer continues, “Are you going to rely on the intentions of people from 240 years ago who thought that Black people were three-fifths of a human being and that women should not have the right to vote? It’s just nonsense; these are people who are otherwise very smart using a big word to rationalize their negative point of view that hurts at least half the country. We can give it all kinds of names and rationales, but at the end, we’re down to this: Is it more important to keep the Supreme Court at nine, or is it more important that all people in America have equal rights? That's the only issue at stake. Whichever side you come out on, OK, but at least be honest to the decision that you're making.”

Clearly, Judge Jerry isn’t shy about adjudicating the current political situation in America. In a wide-ranging interview, he addresses why he voted for Biden, how the justice system is “set up to give white men the advantage,” and why the coronavirus will likely doom Trump’s chances of reelection.

Yahoo Entertainment: Because of coronavirus restrictions, you haven’t been able to have an audience for recent episodes. The audience reaction was always a big part of The Jerry Springer Show — is it odd not having people in the room now?

Jerry Springer: Well, the old show was obviously 100 percent dependent on a live audience, but in a courtroom, the audience has no purpose except to be background. Otherwise, they’re not involved and have to keep quiet. So it doesn’t really affect the decisions I make or the law I have to abide by, but it does change the atmosphere. What you’ll see in some episodes is that the producers have given me a laugh button, so whenever I make a quip or something like that, I push the button and you hear laughter in this empty courtroom.

Is it different for you to be put in the position of judging the people you’re talking to? As a talk show host, you mostly remained an impartial observer helping along the conversation.

The truth is that, in my life, I’m not very judgmental, and that’s due to my liberalism. I believe that people are entitled to live the lives they want as long as they don't hurt anyone else. I don’t cast judgment, because I don’t walk in their shoes. But you’re right: now I have that responsibility. I guess I treat it as if I’m their father or grandfather, and they need to be disciplined. I don’t [judge] out of meanness. I try to be understanding, and explain to them why I’m reaching the decision, and that it’s not a reflection on them or that they’re a bad person. In so many of the cases, the only entities that know the truth are the actual parties and God. Everyone else is just listening to what they’re saying and trying to make a fair judgment.

Do you ever get the sense that any of them are playing to the cameras?

When these suits are filed, no one has any idea that one day they’re going to be on television. Every morning, we have producers that look at every case that has been filed in the United States of America the day before, and if it seems like an interesting case, the plaintiff and defendant get a call going, “Would you like to have your case adjudicated by Jerry Springer on national television?” I am fully aware that if someone didn’t like me going in, why would they ever agree to have me be their judge? So obviously, the people that are coming before us are people that start out with a pretty good feeling about me. They think, “Hey, this is cool. Let's have Jerry do it.” So in the very beginning, you can almost sense their nervousness of being in front of a guy they’ve watched on television for thirty years. That creates a different dynamic, and I’m conscious of that. So in the beginning, I let them state their case and get comfortable with me. Often they’ll just call me, “Jerry” and the producers will have to tell them, “For decorum, call him Judge Jerry.”

Based on the cases that you’re hearing, what’s your sense of what life for ordinary Americans is like right now?

Generally, the things that people are most angry or upset about are the things that happen in their everyday lives. Stuff like, “Why won't the neighbors cut that tree down?” Or, “That person insulted me.” That stuff tends to make you more angry than reading about legislation that Congress may have passed that has more worldly impact. Most often people are — for better or worse — most concerned with the things that immediately touch their family. So you can’t really judge a nation on what makes them angry int the moment.

But you can judge a nation based on what policies they tolerate, and that’s why this election is, in a sense, more about the voters and what we tolerate in our country from our government. I think people are going to the polls to say, “Does Trump really represent our country and our values?” And so, on election night, the whole world will be watching to find out what America is really like and what we tolerate. Because if you tolerate someone who is in a position of power, then what does that say about you? Aren’t you basically just driving the getaway car for this person who assaults our values?

Are you supporting Joe Biden?

Yeah, I’ve already voted for him. I think this election has nothing to do with being a Democrat or a Republican, and the best evidence you have is that if you talk to a friend who says, “I’m voting for Trump,” there’s always an explanation. They always start the sentence by saying, “Well, I know what he's like,” or, “I don't approve of his values,” or, “I wish he wouldn't use that language.” There’s always a qualification, which should be a red flag. Character matters: in fact, I would argue that character is the single most important trait of any president because you can delegate everything else. What you can’t delegate is character. You can get the smartest people on the world to be on your staff, but if you have bad character as a president, you will get the smartest people to figure out ways to do bad things, and that’s exactly what we're witnessing now.

What we’re also seeing is that an incredible number of people that worked for him have been coming out with books, articles and political statements saying something bad about his character. So at some point, aren’t we all agreeing — even if we're lifelong Republicans — that this was not the right pick? Go back to being a Republican later, but at this point, be honest enough that America is better than this. Tom Brokaw would never write a book about this generation that would say, “This was America's greatest generation.”

As someone who defined reality television in the 1990s, do you recognize those tendencies in Trump?

Well, yeah. And you know what? I have nothing personally against Trump, I just don’t think he should be president. I was the host of the Miss Universe Pageant back in 2008 when he still owned it, and he was only nice to me. So this isn’t a personal vendetta. We ought to be able to separate that. Hopefully, we’ll stand up and say, “Enough of this. This is wrong and we know it’s wrong. Let’s move on.”

Character matters: in fact, I would argue that character is the single most important trait of any president Jerry Springer

We’re having a larger conversation right now about the racial inequities built into the American justice system. What’s your take on where we are in that regard?

I don’t think there’s any question that we live in a society where almost everything has been set up to give white men — particularly wealthy white men — the advantage. That's the whole system. I’ll give you an example: I graduated from Northwestern University’s law school in 1968. Mind you, this was a major university in Chicago. We had 190 students in my graduating class, and of those 190 students, two were women and one was Black. I mean, think about that! This wasn’t some rural community in the South someplace. And these are the lawyers that become our judges and politicians.

So how do we even pretend that race hasn’t been a factor here? So if I've got African-American parties before me on the show, and I’m sitting up there on the bench as this old, rich white guy, of course I'm conscious of that. That’s why I keep telling them: “I am no better than anybody here. Get it? And so here’s why I’m reaching this decision.” But that’s not something I do just because I became a judge. I think you grow up with those values. One thing my parents taught me, and which we teach our children and grandchildren, is that you never ever judge someone based on what they are. You only judge people based on what they do. If you can live your life like that, you will never be prejudiced.

Does it frustrate you to see cases like Breonna Taylor, where no police officers were charged with her death despite widespread protests?

Sure, you question that. The system is such that there are always particular details that we don’t know in terms of what happens before a grand jury. So the reason that decision is reached may have been built into the system, not because of anyone on the grand jury. But the rules are inevitably set up to protect a white society. I don’t care what laws you change now: it still hasn’t been an equal competition for several generations. You've been having this race in our country for 240 years where people have a cinder block around their foot as they're racing the white guy.

Then you say, “You know what? Take that cinder block off his legs. Now let's continue the race.” Well, the white guy is already halfway around the track! So when people say, “Look, we're not discriminating now,” maybe you’re not, but you're still living with the benefits of having had that discrimination for 200 years. That's what the institutional racism means. It means that you haven't leveled the playing field; you’ve decided to try to level it now, but you're not making up for what happened before. And that's what this moment is all about.

The worst kind of racism, sometimes, is the polite racism, not the wacko white supremacists. They’re evil, but they’re wackos and everyone sees that. It’s the polite racists that dress up, and then just justify policies that when they’re alone in the room with just God, they know are mean and not fair. Why do they support making it difficult for Black people or Hispanic people to vote? What possible justification do you have for doing it? Because you know that if you can stop Black people from voting, the Republican has a better chance of winning.

We live in a society where almost everything has been set up to give white men — particularly wealthy white men — the advantage. Jerry Springer

One interesting side effect of the Trump era seems to be that political sex scandals seem to be having less consequence now. As someone with a scandal in your own past, do you think that’s changed now?

When people voted for Trump, I think they made that clear. Society has changed altogether, especially with social media. Behavior hasn’t changed, but people's reaction to it has, just because we live in a different world. I remember when The Jerry Springer Show first aired, it was considered outrageous. Nowadays, it seems so ridiculously tame compared to what's on social media.

Have you adjudicated any cases where the pandemic is a factor? And are you seeing a frustration with quarantine restrictions?

Yeah, we’ve had some. We’ve dealt with cases of people being evicted from their homes because they couldn't pay rent, which may violate a local ordinance or a state law. When you watch the show, you won’t be able to tell that I'm in the courtroom in Connecticut, but the plaintiff and defendant are elsewhere in the country. Because of the magic of television, it looks like they’re standing in the courtroom with me. Of course, people are getting upset with this whole [quarantine] situation, but what we have trouble understanding is this is the United States of America and we have the worst performance in terms of getting a grip on this virus than virtually any country in the world. I mean, how did that happen? How could we be the one country in the world that couldn’t make enough masks, and that couldn’t get enough ventilators?

I mean, look at what FDR did to mobilize America when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941! Every factory was turned into making the planes and the tanks we needed, and we won the war. This administration couldn’t even mobilize to have masks made. And frankly, if Biden wins, it won't be due to any of these social issues. Trump will lose because of his being unable to deal with the pandemic: that’s what is doing him in. It’d be nice to say it happened because people had a social conscience, but I think it’s more likely to be because of his failure to handle the pandemic.

Judge Jerry airs in national syndication; check the show’s official website for airtimes

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