The Chronicle of Social Change recently sat down with New York State Senator Diane Savino, an outspoken, influential Staten Island Democrat. We mostly discussed pending legislation, but the conversation took a brief detour toward an even more outspoken, infamous New Yorker: Judge Judith Sheindlin AKA Judge Judy from TV. Savino encountered her in a previous job as a child welfare caseworker for New York City.
Sheindlin presided over Manhattan Family Court for more than a decade until a 1993 profile of her on 60 Minutes caught the eye of TV producers. The 60 Minutes segment’s streetwise hyperbole suited its Brooklyn-born subject, who at the time was hearing child abuse, neglect and delinquency cases:
“[Sheindlin] is a 5-foot-2 package of attitude, with a capital A … To those who confront her, she is the evil queen in a lace collar … Baloney is what she hates. Lectures she likes a lot, likes to give them,” narrates CBS’ Morley Safer over some of the earliest footage from inside a Judge Judy courtroom.
According to Savino, who often testified in Sheindlin’s courtroom, those descriptions were accurate.
“She scared the shit out of people,” she said. “You see what she’s like on TV? She was like that in family court.”
Savino should know: The former caseworker crossed paths with the judge during one of the most chaotic periods in family court history. Sheindlin became a judge in the granite building near City Hall in 1982; Savino joined the city’s child welfare agency in 1990. It was the tail-end of a five-year span that saw a 300 percent increase in parental abuse and neglect cases, according to another entertaining news feature on Sheindlin from 1993. The murder rate was peaking citywide, and the crack epidemic was contributing to around 100 to 200 child removals each night by Savino’s city agency.
“I went down — this is how desperate the city was — I went down to the hiring, and there had to be like 200 people in the room … they basically hired everyone on the spot. If you had a pulse, you were getting hired,” the senator says of her interview for her previous gig as a child protective specialist.
On the job, Savino fondly remembers getting caught in the crossfire of one of Sheindlin’s now-legendary verbal lashings:
“I remember sitting in her courtroom once with a young woman who didn’t want her kids back. But she didn’t want her mother to adopt them either. She got to see the kids, while she was getting her life back together. She had a job, she was living with two other young women, and said ‘this is great, I’m not a teen mother anymore, and I don’t really want to be.’ But they were her kids and she had to take them back.
My director said we needed to ask [Judge Sheindlin] for 12 months [to keep the children in foster care].
I put that in with Judge Judy, and she called me out. ‘You! What do you need 12 months for?’ I gave her a pat answer. Then she asks the mother’s attorney what the situation is, and she says her client is working diligently but hasn’t been able to secure housing. Judy looks at her and says, ‘You get a week.’ Then looks at me: ‘You’re gonna help her find an apartment.’ She issued a short order.
I must have lined up four or five apartments. As a worker you have to learn to develop relationships with landlords and doctors if you want to be successful. I had this real estate agent who I had rented an apartment through myself. I asked her to help me out. She lined up a few places, and this young woman didn’t show up to any of them. She didn’t want to, she was perfectly content with what was happening.
I went back in a week and gave Judge Judy a report on what I did. She says to the mom — ‘What is going on here?’ [The mom] delivered some song and dance about how her mother wasn’t ready to give the kids up and she didn’t feel emotionally prepared herself. Every other family court judge would have said ‘OK’ and stamped it. Judge Judy said, ‘What’s your mother’s phone number?’ The woman said ‘what?!’ Then gave Judy the phone number. Judy got off the bench, went in her chambers, called the [grand]mother on the phone. She comes back in, sits down, and says ‘your mother is perfectly content to give you back your kids. You have one more week to take one of these apartments.’ And that was her order.”
Savino and other contemporary accounts note that Sheindlin made enemies when she was still hearing these high-stakes cases in Manhattan. Josh Getlin of the Los Angeles Times reported that lawyers, defendants and child welfare advocates found the judge “needlessly cruel and sarcastic, a loose cannon in the halls of justice.”
CBS’ Safer even told his audience that her “brash tactics have sparked opposition at City Hall, and Sheindlin — a mayoral appointee — might one day lose her job for purely political reasons.” The CBS newsman reported that Savino’s then-boss, Robert Little, a “cerebral, unassuming,” mayor-appointed child welfare commissioner, shared “choice words” about the judge before the 60 Minutes cameras started rolling for an interview.
Nevertheless, Savino was a fan.
“The best family court judge I ever worked with,” she said.
“She did it for a reason. She’d sit there and watch lawyer after lawyer and caseworkers come in and say, ‘I need another 12 months [to work with a with a family whose child was in foster care].’ And she’d say ‘Why? What are you doing to help this family? Are you just extending it because it’s easier?’ She understood the statutes to mean something. A judge’s order is supposed to have weight.”
Through a spokesperson, Sheindlin declined to comment on whether she thought the situation in family court had gotten better or worse in the quarter century since she left for Hollywood.
Now, Sheindlin mostly hears small-claims arbitration cases between adults from a Los Angeles-area studio. Forbes has marked her personal net worth at around $400 million. In addition to her own show, her Queen Bee Productions produces “Hot Bench,” a courtroom reality program with a three-justice panel that includes Michael Corriero, a former New York criminal court judge who was assigned cases with juveniles accused of more serious offenses.
Sheindlin has revealed that she celebrated the 60 Minutes segment with a trip to the Silver Spoon Diner in Manhattan. The former family court commander would soon be able to afford all the silver spoons in the world.