Judge Joseph Wapner was a retired Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, who for 12 years decided actual small-claims cases on "The People's Court."
The program, which went on the air in 1981, turned real-life litigation into a TV game show. During 2,340 half-hours defendants and plaintiffs plead their cases before Wapner, who then sternly ruled on who had won.
A native Californian, Wapner earned a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and a law degree from the University of Southern California. On the bench, he spent more than 20 years hearing both criminal and civil cases in Municipal and Superior courts. He was also chosen by his peers to be presiding judge of Superior Court and served as president of the California Judges Assn.
There were no landmark cases during Wapner's long career. "Trial judges never make history," he said.
When his retirement came on Nov. 16, 1979, Wapner was ready. "I had accomplished as much as I thought I could as a judge," he said. "and I thought it was time to move on and do some other things."
On "The People's Court," Wapner served as a private judge solving disputes between private individuals.
Wapner originally agreed to do "The People's Court" because of the "integrity" of producers Ralph Edwards and Stu Billett and the authenticity of the show.
"They had investigated and researched for four or five years," he said. "They knew what they were doing."
He liked being able to talk about the cases and his decisions — an opportunity he didn't have in small claims court.
After leaving “The People’s Court” in 1993, he returned to television in 1998 for a two-year stint as the presiding judge on “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court” on Animal Planet.
Wapner died Feb. 26, 2017 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.