NEW YORK - Sixteen years into her career as television's chief justice, Judy Sheindlin is as comfortable in her role as the nation appears to be with her.
"Judge Judy" is such a familiar part of daytime TV that now, in the post-Oprah Winfrey syndication world, it's easy to overlook how dominant it is. The show averaged 10.1 million viewers each day during the third week of January, a typical week, more than the next three courtroom shows combined, the Nielsen company said.
Without her black robe with the white lace, Sheindlin can walk down a Manhattan street undisturbed on a chilly winter afternoon. Just try that with Dr. Phil, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Oz or Katie Couric. Each have daytime shows with an audience less than half of what "Judge Judy" draws each day.
The people who choose to have their disputes settled on camera by Sheindlin know to expect a sharp tongue and sharp judgments. She believes most people take comfort in order, like newborn babies swaddled tightly in a blanket.
"They want to do the right thing, most people," she said. "For that little core that doesn't want to do the right thing and gets away with it routinely, most people want to see them get a good whupping. And I am your girl."
Some of her cases have changed over the years - she appeared uninterested and a little befuddled during a recent discussion about an Xbox hard drive - but Judge Judy doesn't. It's instructive to watch Morley Safer's 1993 feature on "60 Minutes" about Judge Sheindlin of Manhattan's Family Court to see how similar it is to the "Judge Judy" courtroom today. Same Brooklyn attitude and impatience. Same steamrolled plaintiffs (or lawyers, or defendants) muttering under their breaths. Almost the same robe. Safer even coined a phrase, "the evil queen in a lace collar," that's just as applicable now.
That report caught the attention of Hollywood syndicators, who turned Sheindlin from a Tylenol-popping public servant to a celebrity earning a reported $45 million a year with homes in New York, Connecticut, Florida and Wyoming.
"In the field in which she works, I would put her in that class of people throughout the history of broadcasting who really manage to appeal to millions of people at a time yet give you that sense in some way that they're intimately relating to you, like you can go out and have chili with them," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
Thompson admits to underestimating Sheindlin, saying he predicted the growth in DVR usage would be Sheindlin's downfall because many people watched because there was nothing else on. Apparently not.
The self-certainty and willingness to say things others might suppress drives her appeal like it does for Simon Cowell, he said.
"I don't mind getting my hands dirty and I don't mind getting to the truth of a situation and saying, `you're right, you're wrong, next case,'" she said. "If I wasn't right most of the time, we wouldn't be having this conversation today."
As a girl growing up in Brooklyn, Sheindlin said she got her moral compass from her dentist father. He worked part-time for the city and suggested the government could save money by making some of its own dental equipment instead of contracting it out to people who charged more than it was worth. It earned him death threats. He wanted to persist pushing it but backed off because his wife was scared. The effort made an indelible impression on his 8-year-old daughter.
On "Judge Judy," Sheindlin will rapidly cut through arguments and counter-arguments to get to the heart of a case, often with moral judgments attached. "You can't go into a lease with someone and stick `em," she said to former roommates squabbling over back rent.
A tattooed bartender who asked her roommate to drive her children to school because she had worked late stood no chance recovering damages when that roommate got in a car accident. She cared less about the accident than the notion the bartender had passed on her responsibility. If Sheindlin is confronted with a young woman who has multiple children with different fathers, she doesn't hesitate to say: "You have enough children."
"I believe it," she said. "You may disagree with me. But I think if you're 26 years old and you're unemployed and your children have no stability and one lives with grandmother sometimes and you have different men coming into your house fathering these children, the chances that you are going to have a successful person come out of that house, with that upbringing, is diminished. You're not supposed to say it."
Knowing people and their behaviors is her strong suit, certainly not judicial temperament, she said. She admits to being "bratty," in classic ends-justify-the-means style, recalling a Family Court case where she dumped lengthy motions written by expensive lawyers in the trash and told them if they didn't reach a settlement, she would tell their clients the lawyers wanted to bleed them financially.
Sheindlin doesn't want to be briefed by producers about cases before going on the air, preferring to look over their legal arguments and question them herself. Anything else feels uncomfortably like acting to her.
She's signed to continue "Judge Judy" into 2015, but that's not a deadline. "I'm not tired," she said. "I'm still young - 70 is the new 50. I hope I'll know when to say goodbye. Right now I'm not there yet."
Her transition to TV felt fully complete one day a few years ago when she stopped at a bagel restaurant with her husband Jerry, a retired justice on New York state's Supreme Court. They overheard two women arguing about "Judge Judy," one saying she watched and hated her, couldn't get over how rude she was. The other woman said she loved Sheindlin. Judge Judy realized she could take it either way.
"I like it a lot better if you like me," Sheindlin said. "But if you don't like me and watch me every day, what's the difference?"