I come from a family in which it was considered good form to keep your name out of the courts and the newspaper. While you’re growing up, this sort of thing is all well and good; childhood tends to be non-litigious anyway. And it wasn’t until adolescence that I first even entertained the idea of a lawsuit—mandatory DNA testing of my brother to see if he really was one of us—but quickly abandoned it when I couldn’t rustle up any pro bono interest.
But then one day you’re grown up and it’s been a long time since you thought about good form in general—and especially about keeping your name out of the courts and the newspaper. For one thing, it’s silly to worry about keeping your name out of the paper when you just posted some highly questionable pictures of yourself (and someone else; I think he said his name was David, maybe Don) online accompanied by a kind of vulgar haiku. And, good form or not, the odds of staying out of court aren’t good. In fact, with more than 15 million lawsuits filed every year, you have a better chance of being hit by a meteorite than staying out of court. Fifteen million lawsuits a year: That’s one new lawsuit every two seconds.
My own two seconds came a few weeks ago when I filed a suit in small claims court against a publisher who owes me money. Things weren’t supposed to come to this. This was supposed to be all fun: translating a popular German sex guide on anal sex called Bend Over! (Bück dich! in the original.) The German was very casual, the information was good, and the pictures were astounding. Better yet, it was a three-book deal, with volumes about fellatio and masturbation to follow. It was a flat fee, it’d be a nice line on the resume, and I’d be the go-to guy for gay German sex translation. Besides, I’d just lost my job, and translating graphic sex advice seemed a propitious launch to my freelance career. And the pictures were astounding.
It was the first time I’d ever sued anyone, and I was amazed at how easy it is: You fill out a form online, take it to the courthouse, pay $20, and leave the building a plaintiff. I found it to be a real rite of passage. As I made my way through the morning rush hour afterward and maneuvered past the huddled and hustling masses on Canal Street, I looked at all those lives around me, all those people, people suing other people, and thought, “I’m part of this now.” I couldn’t wait for my court date. I couldn’t wait for justice to be served. Truthfully, I wasn’t overly concerned about justice; I just wanted my money.
The court date was still a little over two weeks away when I got the letter from Mandy, a senior producer at Judge Mathis. Apparently Mandy had been surfing the public records of small claims suits and thought mine might be right for the show. She told me that, even if I won my case, regular (i.e., non-TV) court couldn’t promise I’d collect my payment, but that if I won before Judge Mathis—and an audience of millions—the money was guaranteed. She said I should call, email, or fax her as soon as possible so she could help me get the justice I seek.
I take the law very seriously, so I went to the Judge Mathis website. The homepage had a video log sneak-peeking the week’s cases: cat-fighting teenagers, someone who had sex with somebody else’s whatever, a guy suing a stripper—all of them over-emphatic, hysterical. I thought: “I could do that.” I could see myself leaning into the microphone, lowering my eyes a moment, then raising them and saying, “Your Honor…” I could get a little catch in my voice as I described my struggle for survival in this economy, this city, doing freelance proofreading by day, translating at night, poring over legal and financial documents, hunting for errant commas while in the back of my mind knowing I still had to do the chapter on lubricants. I thought if they gave me enough prep time (or retakes), I might even be able to cry.
What really sold me, though, was the slogan at the top of the page. After Judge Mathis’s name, it said, “Justice that makes a difference.”
“That’s exactly what I want,” I thought. “Justice with a tagline.”
I called and left a message for Mandy.
I also emailed her.
Mandy phonetagged me back within a couple hours and left a message. Working for justice had clearly rendered her cheerful. Her voice was very perky, very “up,” and it was only her flat Midwestern vowels that kept it from lifting off entirely. She thanked me for getting back to her, said my case sounded really interesting, and was very enthusiastic about my chances of appearing before Judge Mathis. And sometimes all you want is a little enthusiasm. I left her a message saying I’d get back to her.
The next day I got the letter from the People’s Court. It was pretty much the same deal as Judge Mathis, except that even if you lost on People’s Court they still gave you $250 for your trouble. With Judge Mathis, though, you got a free trip to Chicago, and I’ve got friends in Chicago, and there’s this one restaurant I’d love to go to… Justice, of course, entails having to make tough decisions, but I wasn’t ready for this one yet. I decided to keep my options open. I called and left a message for the People’s Court lady, Liz.
Somewhere in there it’s bound to come up that I’m the author of a fairly popular piece of pornography, so I’m giving His Honor plenty to work with here. And this is TV: If my side has all the good jokes, I win. For some reason the People’s Court website reminded me of those ads on the subway for hammertoe surgery: a vague unpleasantness conveyed in a lot of purple and orange. Judge Milian was on the homepage, robed and gaveled, and there was a new, beta-level feature called People’s Court RAW (“RAW” in red neon letters), where you could upload your argument and “let the people decide.” I don’t really trust the people all that much, though—especially at beta level—so I passed.
The great thing about People’s Court, of course, is how they name the cases—titles like “You Better Be Nice to My Mother,” “Ripping Off an Ex,” and “Who Caused the Doggie Damage.” A few even lean toward innuendo—like “Bugging Out on a Bed” and “Trimming Someone Else’s Bush”—and the possibilities for Bend Over! suddenly seemed limitless. Two problems, though: The People’s Court has no tagline (I would recommend “The People’s Court: Where Justice Is Popular”) and Judge Milian’s bio describes her as “sassy,” which puts me off.
Liz, like Mandy, loved the Bend Over! angle, and also thought the case had potential. I think they found it interesting that while the main focus of the gay community right now seems to be toward marriage, family, and serving in the army, there’s still a subset of us suing each other over anal sex guides. They weren’t sure if we could actually say “anal sex” on TV, but they figured if we just said the title of the book, the point would be made and innuendo would take care of the rest. Mandy was particularly excited because, as is apparent even on the website, Judge Mathis likes his quip. And somewhere in there it’s bound to come up that I’m the author of a fairly popular piece of pornography, and my roommate is willing to testify as a lack-of-character witness, so I’m giving His Honor plenty to work with here. And this is TV: If my side has all the good jokes, I win.
So I asked Liz and Mandy what the next step would be, and the next step was to contact the defendant. Here’s where justice began to falter, for while justice may have its demands, it can’t demand that you go on TV and I couldn’t picture the publisher sharing my enthusiasm for turning our dispute into pop culture. My real fear was that he would decline, and then mention my attempt to go on TV to the “real” judge. And just as there are two types of people in the world, there are two types of judge—the ones who are on TV and the ones who aren’t—and I didn’t need my opponent reminding the judge that he couldn’t get a development deal with Fox.
I also asked Liz and Mandy what the shooting schedule would be, and neither show could get me in until after my scheduled court date. Then there’d be post-production, working it into the roster of cases, posting it to the website—it could be weeks before I saw the money, since you probably weren’t paid until the case actually aired. (I saw no clips of people receiving checks on the website.) And, while I had fond email/voicemail relationships with Liz and Mandy, I didn’t entirely buy their claim about small claims court being unable to get the defendant to pay. I mean, why would they invent a court that couldn’t enforce its decisions? And if it couldn’t, why would anyone use it?
And if small claims court was a fraud, wouldn’t I have heard something about it? Wouldn’t there have been “10 Things to Know Before You Sue” on Yahoo! or somewhere? Wouldn’t somebody have been bitching about it on Facebook? (Or starting a “Let’s Take Betty White to Small Claims Court” page?) I reminded myself that this wasn’t so much about speedy justice as about speedy money, so I told Liz and Mandy I’d pass. I decided to do the brave thing: to throw myself at the mercy of a camera-less court, and hope that justice doesn’t only make a difference on TV.
One advantage of TV court that Liz and Mandy hadn’t mentioned was the lighting. People in the video clips may have looked like fools, but they were well-lit fools. Real-life court, however, has a heavy investment in fluorescence, and they seem to have found a version with even more yellow-gray in it than the kind on the C train or at the food stamp office. So all of us in the courtroom—judge, clerks, and litigants (mostly personal injury and dented-fender types)—looked like we had Stage 3 hepatitis.
There were too many of us for one judge to see, so most of the cases were referred to arbitrators, court-appointed attorneys whose judgments are binding. While I waited to see mine, I overheard another arbitrator trying to get two guys to reach a settlement amount. One of them was being particularly adamant, and at one point said, “It’s the principle of the thing.” The arbitrator jumped on him immediately and said, “Hey, look: You’re in the wrong court. This court is not about principles. It’s about money.” Which—even more than a tagline—was all I really wanted.
I won the case by default since the publisher didn’t even bother to send a representative, so all my arbitrator had to do was fill out a form. Flush with victory (and mentally spending the money), I asked the arbitrator whether there was any truth to the rumor that a lot of small claims people don’t get their money even if they win. He said that might be the case with small businesses and smaller landlords, but that big companies like my defendant usually paid up. I signed the form and retreated from that lighting.