Joseph Wapner

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Joseph Wapner
Joseph Albert Wapner

(1919-11-15)November 15, 1919
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
DiedFebruary 26, 2017(2017-02-26) (aged 97)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting placeMount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles
Alma mater
  • Judge
  • television personality
Years active1959–2010
Known forThe People's Court
Mildred Nebenzahl Wapner
(m. 1946)

Joseph Albert Wapner (November 15, 1919 – February 26, 2017) was an American judge and television personality. He is best known as the first presiding judge of the ongoing reality court show The People's Court. The show's first run in syndication, with Judge Wapner presiding as judge, lasted from 1981 to 1993, for 12 seasons and 2,484 episodes. While the show's second run has been presided over by multiple judges, Wapner was the sole judge to preside during the show's first incarnation. His tenure on the program made him the first jurist of arbitration-based reality court shows, which evolved into the most popular trend in the judicial genre and continues to be to the present.

Early life[edit]

Joseph Albert Wapner was born on November 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, California,[1] to Jewish parents who had immigrated there; his father, attorney[2] Joseph Max Wapner (1898–1992), was from Romania, while his mother, Fannie (née Friedman) (1901-1990), was from Russia. Wapner had a younger sister named Irene. Wapner attended Hollywood High School and once dated actress Lana Turner while in high school.[3][2]

Wapner was a graduate of the University of Southern California (1941) and the USC Law School (1948),[1] serving in World War II in between.[4] Wapner was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star while serving in the South Pacific in Cebu.[2] He was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant.[4] While at U.S.C. Wapner was initiated into the Tau Gamma Chapter of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity.[5]


Legal career[edit]

Wapner was an attorney in private practice for ten years.[2]

Appointed by Governor Pat Brown to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959,[6] Wapner served two years before being elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where he served for 18 years before retiring.[1] While serving on the Superior Court bench, Wapner served as presiding judge in 1969 and 1970.[6] Wapner was also president of the California Judges Association in 1975 and 1976 and retired from the court on November 16, 1979.[1][6]

The People's Court[edit]

Wapner was the first judge to preside over the court show The People's Court. His tenure on the program lasted from 1981 to 1993, making for 2,340 half-hour episodes.[1][6] On the series, he conducted a binding arbitration that was set up to resemble a small claims court by pitting parties, without lawyers, against each other. The legacy of the show's high popularity has led to various other similar syndicated courtroom shows, such as Judge Judy and Hot Bench, among others.

After 12 seasons on The People's Court, Wapner was not invited back to the series in 1993, when the ratings had dropped to an all-time low.[7] After a four-year hiatus, beginning in 1993, The People's Court returned to the air in 1997, and aired until July 2023. Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, served as judge from September 1997 until June 1999, Jerry Sheindlin served from September 1999 until March 2001, and Marilyn Milian served from March 2001 until July 2023.

Wapner stated that he was told years later that the producers did not want to hurt his feelings; however, he noted that this is precisely what the show did. Wapner also said he was not notified when the producers revamped the series. He declined to offer opinions on the People's Court judges who succeeded him, as he never watched the revamped program.[8]

On November 12, 2009, Wapner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.[1] He and Judith Sheindlin of the television court show Judge Judy were the only two television jurists who have received the honor as of 2009. Wapner was publicly critical of Sheindlin's courtroom adjudicating approach.[9]

On November 13, 2009, in honor of his 90th birthday on November 15, Wapner made a one-time-only return to the court show, acting as a guest judge, presiding over a case in the Marilyn Milian era of The People's Court.[10]

Until the summer of 2013, Wapner also held the title of longest-reigning arbiter over The People's Court. However, by completion of the court show's 2012–2013 season, Milian captured this title from him and became the longest-reigning judge in the series. Milian remained on the show until its cancellation in July 2023.

Other media appearances and endeavors[edit]

Five years after presiding over The People's Court, Wapner returned to television as a judge in spin-off nontraditional courtroom series Judge Wapner's Animal Court, lasting for two seasons (1998–1999 and 1999–2000) on Animal Planet.

Wapner authored a book, A View from the Bench (1987, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 9780671638733).

On the back cover, Alice Cooper's 1983 album "DaDa" has "Special Thanks to Judge Joseph A. Wapner".

On June 27, 1986, Wapner appeared on the Tonight Show to hear a case of David Letterman vs. Johnny Carson over alleged damage to the headlight of Letterman's pickup truck when Carson had the truck towed to the studio. Wapner ruled in favor of Letterman, granting him $24.95.[11]

In 1995 he appeared as an alternate-universe version of himself as Commissar of a "People's Court" in a Soviet-controlled California in an early episode of Sliders.[12]


During 1999–2000, Wapner served as the national spokesperson for Singer Asset Finance Company, LLC, a specialty finance company, appearing in national television commercials and print ads.[13]

Since around 2010, the soda company Rocket Fizz has marketed a beverage, Judge Wapner Cream Soda, featuring the slogan, "I sentence you to drink my cream soda."[14]

Personal life, final years and death[edit]

Wapner was active in Jewish causes, including sitting on the board of a Jewish school.[15] He was married to Mildred “Mickey” Wapner (née Nebenzahl) for 71 years, from 1946 until his death in 2017.[2] Their daughter Sarah died from heart disease in May 2015 at age 56. They also had two sons who became attorneys: David Miron-Wapner and Frederick Nathan Wapner,[16] the latter of whom was a prosecutor and L.A. district attorney who also became a judge (including with the Los Angeles County Superior Court).[17] Wapner also had four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Wapner died from respiratory failure on February 26, 2017, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97 years old.[2][18] He is interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Troutman, Andrew (April 4, 1982). "Judge Joseph Wapner". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Bernstein, Adam (February 26, 2017). "Joseph Wapner, judge on 'The People's Court,' dies at 97". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 2, 2017.
  3. ^ "Hollywood High School Alumni Website". Archived from the original on December 17, 2007. Retrieved September 8, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Trott, Bill (February 26, 2017). "'People's Court' Judge Joseph Wapner Dies at 97: Reports". US News. Archived from the original on February 27, 2017. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  5. ^ "Distinguished Members". Tau Epsilon Phi Fraternity. Retrieved January 9, 2024.
  6. ^ a b c d Okamoto, Sherri M., Wapner: From Jurist to TV Star to the Man on the Root Beer Bottle, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, July 17, 2009, page 3
  7. ^ "People's Court Free TV Show Tickets in New York City" Archived November 21, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. New York Show Tickets, 2013, accessed November 26, 2013
  8. ^ Joseph A. Wapner Interview, Archive of American Television, July 11, 2005, accessed November 26, 2013
  9. ^ Grace, Roger M. (September 11, 2003). "Judge Wapner vs. Judge Judy: What A Match That Would Have Been". Retrieved July 22, 2009.
  10. ^ "Judge Wapner is coming back to 'People's Court' this week". Fox News. November 11, 2009. Archived from the original on November 15, 2009. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  11. ^ "Judge Joseph Wapner, star of The People's Court, dies aged 97". BBC News. February 26, 2017. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  12. ^, Sliders "Pilot"
  13. ^ Williams, Rob (November 12, 1998). "Judge Wapner Shows DRTV Appeal; Singer Plans National Rollout". Direct Marketing News. Archived from the original on December 2, 2013. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  14. ^ "Judge Wapner Cream Soda". Soda Pop Labels of Fame. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
  15. ^ Hernandez, Marjorie (April 20, 2007). "Jewish University created: Brandeis–Bardin merges with Bel Air school". Ventura County Star. Archived from the original on August 7, 2011.
  16. ^ "Judge Profile: Frederick Nathan Wapner". Martindale Avvo. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  17. ^ Lee, John H. (October 13, 1989). "New Judge Wapner : Son of 'People's Court' Jurist, 2 Others Don Judicial Robes". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  18. ^ "Son says 'The People's Court' Judge Joseph Wapner has died". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. February 26, 2017. Retrieved March 2, 2017.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
First Judge of The People's Court
Succeeded by
Ed Koch
(in the 1997 revival)