By Lois Armstrong
December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

The judge took pity on the defendant who wanted to keep his paying job and serve his work-release sentence on weekends. But when the judge called the Sheriffs Department to make the arrangements, he sensed trouble—right after he announced: “This is Judge Wapner.”

“Is this a joke?” came the response. “Are you really Judge Wapner?”

In his few months as a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, Frederick Wapner, the son of TV’s The People’s Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner, has come to expect skepticism about his identity. But it tests his judicial temperament to stoop to the usual standard of proof: “I explained who I was and who my dad was,” says Wapner, recalling the phone call. “Then he wanted to know if I knew Rusty, the bailiff on People’s Court.”

A deputy district attorney for 14 years, Wapner the younger, 40, moved to the other side of the bench this year, taking his oath in the same room where his father was first sworn in three decades earlier. Wapner père, a former Los Angeles Superior Court judge who brought his gavel to television eight years ago, was on hand last month to offer some of his now familiar wisdom. “Be humble,” said Dad, 70, to his son and two other newly sworn judges. “Take your work seriously. But for God’s sake, don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Compared with his father’s TV courtroom, the setting in which the son presides is unscripted and a lot less orderly. “I always thought I would have a quiet court and that those who disturbed it would be reprimanded,” says Wapner, who juggles 60 to 80 cases a day involving petty theft, prostitution, drunk driving and drug offenses. “But with the lawyers from both sides talking to each other about the next case, the clerk checking people in and the interpreters talking at the same time you are, that’s not possible. Still, you get used to it. Otherwise, nothing would ever get done.”

If the commotion is strange, the idea of practicing law is something that Wapner got used to long ago. Joseph M. Wapner, his 91-year-old grandfather, was an attorney for 60 years and on occasion appeared on TV’s old Divorce Court. Wapner’s younger brother, David, is also an attorney, and only his sister, Sarah, a teacher’s aide, and his mother, Mickey, a former dean’s assistant at UCLA, escaped the calling. “I don’t think I ever did know I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Fred. “It was something that was almost inevitable.”

A 1975 graduate of McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Wapner got his break in 1986 as the prosecutor in the now famous Billionaire Boys Club case. The six-month trial, which resulted in a murder conviction for the principal defendant and a hung jury for another, did “for me what the TV show has done for Dad,” he says. “It gave me visibility.” This year, when a municipal court judge was promoted, Wapner was appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian to serve the remaining five years of the term. He now commutes downtown from his West L.A. stucco-and-flagstone home where he has kept bachelor quarters since 1985. “What I’m getting is absolutely terrific experience,” he says of his new $82,000-a-year post. And as to future plans for a TV appointment like his father’s, “I’m looking for a law career, not a television career,” he says. Wapner the elder agrees. Cautions Dad: “He has 20 years ahead of him before that’s likely to happen.”

—Lois Armstrong in L.A.