Real judges are dedicated public servants whose work and demeanor often differ from the common Hollywood tropes. Our staff member Eric Surber went on a search for shows that offer a more realistic portrayal of judges. Below are 10 documentaries and shows, in no particular order, that he selected and reviewed based on the criteria that they 1) feature real judges, 2) are currently available for streaming, and, most importantly, 3) were enjoyable.
We hope you enjoy them, too, this holiday season. Please share your recommendations with us on Twitter!
1. Skid Row Marathon (2017)
This documentary follows Superior Court of Los Angeles County Judge Craig Mitchell and the Skid Row Running Club, a group of former convicts and homeless individuals, as they work to better their circumstances and overcome cycles of addiction, crime, and gang violence that left them living on Skid Row.
In the heartbreaking opening scene, Judge Mitchell zips up his robe before delivering what essentially amounts to a life sentence. The rest of the documentary offers hope for a system that reduces recidivism and supports reentry. For example, one running club member, Raphael, is on parole for murder. Judge Mitchell even admits Raphael’s post-incarceration success made him reconsider a criminal defendant’s ability to evolve.
2. Caught in Providence (2015-present)
Judge Frank Caprio is the Chief Municipal Judge in Providence, Rhode Island, and former Chairman of the Rhode Island Board of Governors. He was appointed in 1985 and has been re-appointed six times by the mayor of Providence and the Providence City Council. In addition to being a judge, he now stars in the syndicated show “Caught in Providence,” which is similar to other daytime court TV shows — e.g. Judge Judy or Judge Mathis — but the cases and people are real, and the set is Judge Caprio’s actual Rhode Island courtroom. The show is even more entertaining than the cable network versions because the cases and outcomes really matter.
3. RBG (2018)
This film traces Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s journey to the Supreme Court, legal brilliance, and jurisprudence. While Justice Ginsburg’s celebrity status probably led to this documentary (the pop art rendering of the Justice certainly plays on this), the documentary shows how detached she really was from all the memes, t-shirts, and SNL sketches.
Justice Ginsburg, along with her eight colleagues, made an enormous sacrifice on the Court; she essentially devoted her entire life to promoting a justice system that serves all Americans equally. I hope we get to hear more SCOTUS justices’ stories in the future.
4. Miles Lord: Minnesota’s Maverick Judge (2017)
This portrait of United States District Judge Miles Welton Lord of the District of Minnesota is based on the book Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice by Roberta Walburn. Judge Lord rose from humble beginnings in Minnesota to become one of the most prominent judges in the country presiding over a series of landmark cases, including the Reserve Mining pollution case and a class-action lawsuit against A.H. Robins, maker of the Dalkon Shield. If you’re like me when you watch the documentary, you’ll be searching for the primary source material, like the depositions from the 1984 Dalkon shield case and NYT’s coverage of an absolutely searing courtroom lecture to A.H. Robins executives.
5, 6 & 7. A More or Less Perfect Union (2020)
This three-part series for PBS is an odyssey into the bedrock of the American Constitution and government. Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit discusses a range of Court-related topics with an all-star cast of legal scholars and judges. His guests include Professor Nadine Strossen, former president of the ACLU, Justice Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of the Georgia supreme court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Supreme Court, and regular citizens and non-legal professionals like comedian Jeremy McLellan.
The series especially succeeds in presenting multiple aspects of an issue and allowing viewers to form their own conclusions. Like Bill Nye the Science Guy or Reading Rainbow, the series also makes learning enjoyable through its easy-to-follow, fun-loving format. The following episodes are available on the PBS Explorer paid streaming service, but check your local listings for additional viewing opportunities. Additionally, Judge Ginsburg talked about the documentary with Professor William Baude of the University of Chicago Law School in February of 2020. Video of that discussion, which contains clips from the series, is available for free through the National Archives on YouTube.
8. Sandra Day O’Connor: The First (2021)
A new documentary for PBS’s American Experience profiles Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Her appointment to the Court in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan was at that time seen as symbolic — she was the first female justice to serve on the court. During her two decades on the bench, would emerge as a critical swing vote and the voice of the moderate majority. “As the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was meant to be a symbol,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Cameo George. “However, once on the bench, she often defied expectations and was able to use her vote to significantly influence the direction of the Court and our country for nearly 25 years.”
Two minutes and 47 seconds is enough time for any great storyteller. In that time, Judge Olly Neal told a story that StoryCorp, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve oral histories, turned into an animated short film. His story is about Mrs. Mildred Grady, the librarian in Judge Neal’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. She crafted a scheme to interest the young Judge Neal in books. Judge Neal attributes much of his later success in life, like attending law school and becoming a judge, to this scheme.
10. Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law (2021)
Quick disclaimer: I helped write and produce this video for the Bolch Judicial Institute, which honors two remarkable justices and recipients of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law, an annual award given to distinguished judges for their work to promote the rule of law around the world.
The celebration offers unique insight into the lives and legacy of two judges who were both born in South Africa during the era of apartheid — Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke of the South Africa Constitutional Court and Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — who grew up under very different circumstances but went on to lead inspiring careers in the law. Hosted by PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff, it includes a conversation with the justices about the importance of the rule of law, human rights including LGBTQ+ rights, and how their different experiences growing up under apartheid informed their jurisprudence.