Think about this: Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. every weekday, there's a court show on at least one of the local stations.
Among the pack is Judge Alex. The star of the show is Judge Alex Ferrer, who could fill in for Fred Gwynne if they ever make a sequel to My Cousin Vinny. Ferrer was in Indianapolis last week to see his first Indianapolis 500 in person and promote his syndicated program, which just finished its sixth season. (Judge Alex airs from 10-11 a.m. weekdays on WNDY-23.)
Ferrer, 50, was a cop at 19, Florida circuit judge at 34 and a civil litigator – mostly representing wrongful death, medical malpractice and personal injury defendants – in between.
In an interview at the offices of WISH/WNDY, Ferrer said, among other things, that society is too litigious.
"And we have this expectation," he said, "that everything that happens is somebody's fault when what's that saying? Blank happens."
Here's the rest of the conversation.
NUVO: There must be 400 court shows on TV now.
Judge Alex: I think it's about 375, but you're close.
NUVO: So how do you differentiate yourself?
Judge Alex: Judges differentiate themselves by their personality, number one, and the way they run their courtroom. Mine is more of a law-and-order type of atmosphere because of my experience. I'm the only one who has been a police officer, lawyer and judge. I try to run a tighter ship. I don't like too much cross-talking, where they start going after each other. I usually shut that down right away. And then it's personality, because our formats are very similar. They're all small-claims cases. So I think people tune in because they like the judge. And then they stay and watch if they like the case.
NUVO: Have you noticed people playing to the camera?
Judge Alex: Not too much. I thought going in that I would see a lot of that. Occasionally, I'll see somebody who's hamming it up, but most of the time people are really serious and sincere about their case. They might be funny, they might laugh about it, but most of them are there because they want to win. These are real cases. We take them out of courthouses all over the country.
NUVO: So they're not just Florida cases?
Judge Alex: No. And that's what makes my job so hard. Because unlike the other TV judges, I do it according to the law where the case originated. We bring cases from Indiana, Tennessee, New York, California, Florida. I tape 8-10 cases a day. So when I get on the bench to handle your case, I need to know what Indiana law is on the topic you're suing about – which might be a dog bite or a landlord-tenant dispute or a contract.
Other judges, you'll notice if you watch – I don't know why you would (he smiled) – use a general fairness principle. They basically do what they think is right. That's perfectly fine. I just felt going into this that if I go to the courthouse in Indiana, pull out your file, call you and say, "Why don't you come on the Judge Alex show? We can try your case next week," instead of sitting there and waiting for 10 months, and you do go to L.A., where I tape, why should the result be different than if you were in an Indiana courthouse? The law should be the same. I shouldn't do what I want. I should do what Indiana law says. It makes the job that much harder because the night before, I have to prepare eight to 10 cases, knowing the law on each one.
NUVO: My reaction to that is: What are you, nuts?
Judge Alex: I know. But I think it's the right way to do it, and I think people appreciate it. I think the viewers are fascinated by the law, as you can tell by all the TV shows that relate to it. I think they appreciate it when I say, "If you were in Texas, you'd be right because the law in Texas is, if you break up with your fiancé, you have to give the engagement ring back because you broke it off. But in Florida is ... whatever." They like that germ of knowledge about the law, even if they live in Nebraska. I think it makes the show more interesting, in addition to being the right thing to do for the litigants.
NUVO: How do you find the cases?
Judge Alex: We have stringers – people all over the country who go into courthouses and look for cases that seem like they'd be interesting. Our producers contact the litigants and find out if the case is as interesting as we think it is and if they can tell a story. We want people who can be chronological and linear-thinking. And, of course, we look for personalities. But we also look for relationships – coworkers, neighbors, family, former lovers. So you get the story, which is what everybody relates to.
NUVO: It's a lot different than I thought.
Judge Alex: What did you think?
NUVO: Well, I thought you were based in Florida, for one thing. I thought it covered local cases.
Judge Alex: No. My show was originally taped in Houston, Texas, for the first five years. When they approached me, I was a Florida (circuit court) judge. They wanted to tape in L.A. But my daughter and my son were 12 and 14, and I said I'm not going to leave my kids in Florida while I'm taping in California and they're teenagers. So it was going to be either New York or Texas, and they'd just canceled a show in Texas, so they had a room available. That was a piece of cake. It's 2½ hours away as opposed to five, one time zone difference as opposed to three. If I have to come home, getting in and out of Houston is nothing. Getting out of LaGuardia can be a problem. After five years, they said they'd like to move it to L.A., and that was fine.
NUVO: Do you ever wish you could give the death penalty?
Judge Alex: Unfortunately, I've already given the death penalty twice (as a circuit court judge). I wouldn't wish that on anybody. There are some people who appear in front of me who probably deserve it, but it's a sobering thing.
NUVO: Did your death penalty rulings get upheld on appeal?
Judge Alex: Yes. Actually, it was the longest criminal prosecution in Miami's history, and Michael Bay, the director who did Transformers, is making a movie about the case.
NUVO: What were the circumstances?
Judge Alex: It was these two bodybuilders. The plan ultimately became: Kidnap wealthy people, take everything they have – cars, houses, boats, apartments – kill them and move on to the next. It didn't start out that way. He's described it as a Pulp Fiction kind of movie, and he's absolutely right. It's got sex, gruesome violence, black humor.
NUVO: You've been a police officer, an attorney and a judge. Which is hardest?
Judge Alex: Being a lawyer was harder because it wasn't what I enjoyed doing. I loved being a cop. It was very gratifying. When I took off my uniform at night, I felt like I was the one wearing the white hat. It felt good. When I became a lawyer, I didn't find that gratification. It was very lucrative. I was very good at what I did, but every day when I went to work, I was like, "Oh, my God, I've got to do this again." It wasn't long before I decided I needed to find something else that was more satisfying. I thought being a judge would be gratifying, like being a police officer, because you're always trying to do the right thing. You're constrained by the law, but 99 times out of 100, the law and justice go hand in hand. I was right.
NUVO: Do you watch the competition?
Judge Alex: I don't, because what's to watch? (laughs) I don't, because it's what I do. I do it all day. The last thing I want to do is see someone else do it all day.
NUVO: Are you glad that people get to see what goes on in a courtroom?
Judge Alex: Yeah. The biggest criticism I hear, if I hear any criticism – most of the time, people are very complimentary – is from my former colleagues, who'll go, "The thing about court shows is it gives people the wrong impression of the judicial system." It depends on the courtroom. Some of my competition snap at people and rip their head off every day. That doesn't happen in court because judges would be sanctioned if they did that every day. But do judges snap at people and rip their head off? Oh, yeah. Ask lawyers. They get their heads ripped off – if it's warranted.
What I like about court shows is, people in America do not learn about the law by hiring $500-an-hour lawyers. They learn about it from us – if we're doing our job right. They learn about how not to get taken. I have a Facebook page where people write all the time, " I learned from watching you – I don't care if it's my cousin, my best friend, if I loan them money, I make them sign a note." It's enjoyable, but you learn something. It's entertaining, but it's educational. And there aren't a lot of things on television that are both educational and entertaining at the same time.
NUVO: It's the fictional shows that give people the wrong impression because they think everything is wrapped up in an hour.
Judge Alex: CSI is a nightmare for judges. A great show. But when I was on the bench, we had to specifically voir dire the jury about CSI. Every case does not have fingerprints. Every case does not have DNA. But because of CSI, jurors get the impression that if the crime was committed, the police come in, they wave this blue-light wand and you see all the DNA and all the fingerprints. So it was easy for defense lawyers to get up there and go, "Where's the evidence? Yeah, she says he did it, but if he did it, we would have fingerprints. We would have DNA. We would have hair samples." And the jurors would sit there and say, "Yeah, I saw it on TV." So some of those fake shows, which are just pure entertainment, do more harm than our show. Because our show is reality.