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Before Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mills Lane and Judge Greg Mathis, there was Judge Joseph Wapner and The People's Court. Litigants brought their small claims issues before him, and for the first time America got to learn about the law on a scale never before possible.
Today he runs The Animal Court on the Animal Planet Television network. All the issues he decides somehow involve animals: dog bites; pet property damage; fathering unwanted offspring, harassment; veternarian malpractice; emotional distress; negligence and rightful custody.
His decisions are legally binding. He awards up to the maximum allowed in a California small claims court of $5,000.
After retiring from the bench in 1979, Judge Wapner ran The People's Court from 1981-1993. It was one of the most popular syndicated television shows ever. The show received many awards.
Judge Wapner served on many boards. He is a founding member of the Coalition for Justice, a non-profit agency to increase support for state courts.
On the People's Court he decided typical small claims issues and family matters. The participants had all been participants in a California court and had agreed to drop their cases and let Judge Wapner decide.
Since he left the show it has been run first by former New York Mayor Ed Koch then Judge Jerry Sheindlin, husband of Judge Judy of the Judge Judy television show. The show has usually been about ordinary people in ordinary situations. One case, however, involved determining the rightful owner of the ball Mark McGuire hit for his 66th home run.
The cases on the animal planet can be varied. In one case the defendant had adopted a cat from the plaintiff. The defendant claimed that the cat snapped at his new baby when the baby pulled its tail. He also said the cat urinated on his rug. He returned it to the plaintiff.
The plaintiff claimed the cat was sick and she incurred $2,000 in veternarian bills before she could give the cat to someone else. The defendant claimed he didn't know the cat was sick.
In another case the plaintiff claimed she bought a horse from the defendant for $1,500 based on a contact with someone else and a photograph. She claimed when she got the horse it was sick and was covered with insect bites. She said the defendant was supposed to restore the horse to health before selling it. She sued for $1,000--the cost of veternarian bills.
The defendant claimed she was only an agent in the sale and produced a notarized letter to that effect. She also produced a video, which she claimed proved the horse was in good condition.
Before the People's Court Judge Wapner became a Municipal Court Judge in 1959 and then served on the Los Angeles County Superior Court from 1961 until his retirement.
Besides his law degree from USC, Judge Wapner first obtained a degree in philsophy from the same school in 1942. He also received a Purple Heart for service in World War II after nearly being killed by a Japanese sniper.