December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

You made two babies—there have to be other parts of your body that work,” Judge Judy cracks to a deadbeat dad. Then, faced with a witness spinning a tall tale, Judy taps her forehead and says, “Does it say ‘Stupid’ here?” Order in the court! “A real judge should be more dignified,” scolds Georgetown law prof and TV analyst Paul Rothstein. “But she hooks people.” Nearly 10 million viewers have made Sheindlin, 57, America’s hottest syndicated daytime TV star. Not bad for a New York City grandmother of five whose $113,000 annual salary as a family court judge pales beside the $150,000 a week she now earns. Her success has inspired spoofs by Saturday Night Live’s Cheri Oteri and The Chimp Channel and a slew of knockoffs (Judge Mills Lane, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis). Even husband Jerry, 66, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, has gotten into the act, presiding, since September, over the revived People’s Court. Judy says the public’s embrace reflects a backlash against judicial failure. “Most people who have contact with the justice system feel frustrated, fed up,” she says. “Too often they feel justice was not done.” In Judy’s court—where researchers snag cases from small-claims dockets around the U.S.—complaints are few, in part because judgments are paid for by the show. Kenny Kramer, the real-life inspiration for the Seinfeld character, went before the judge in 1998 after a volunteer on his brief New York bid for mayor sued for wages. “She’s adorable, witty, shoots from the hip,” says Kramer, who was found not liable. “You can’t knock it.” Yet when critics call her nasty, Sheindlin cops a plea: “I am rough on people. I say what’s on my mind. If that’s not the law in your jurisdiction, it ought to be.” It sure seems to be in one key precinct—her home. “In real life, it’s worse,” says Jerry. “Judy’s somewhat restrained on TV.”

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