Brown, Joe 19(?)(?)–
Joe Brown 19(?)(?)–
Until April of 2001, Joe Brown billed himself as the only sitting judge with his own television show. Following his resignation from the Tennessee Criminal Court, he concentrated solely on hosting his nationally-televised daily courtroom drama series, Judge Joe Brown. Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, said in the company’s show description of Judge Joe Brown that Brown “is magnetic, wise, and compassionate. At the same time, his from-the-streets upbringing gives him a tough-love approach to courtroom justice that endears him to viewers nationwide.”
Brown was born into a tough neighborhood in Washington, O.C., the only child of two schoolteachers. The family moved to southcentral Los Angeles when he was a young boy. Life in the inner city, whether Washington or Los Angeles, was difficult and dangerous. Brown saw friends succumb to the harshness and despair of the streets. He said in the Big Ticket Television show description that he was one of the few kids in his neighborhood who did not end up “dead or in jail.” Brown credited education for his escape. He graduated at the top of his class from Dorsey High School in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. He then went on to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where he majored in political science and helped pay for classes by digging ditches and loading trucks. Although the law had not been his goal initially, Brown decided to apply to law school at UCLA and was accepted. To support himself while he earned his law degree, Brown worked as a substitute teacher.
In 1973, Brown moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to work with legal services there and was later employed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He became the city’s first African-American prosecutor in the city and then moved to the Public Defender’s office as director.
By 1978, Brown had left public life and opened his own law office. He returned to the public arena 12 years later, when he was elected judge of Division 9, State Criminal Courts, for Shelby County in 1990. He began to make a small name for himself with his efforts to help kids stay out of trouble and his methods of alternative sentencing. He was known for spending personal time following up on his cases in criminal court, especially those that involved young people. For his work with inner city kids, Brown was honored at the
At a Glance…
Born Joe Brown, in Washington, D.C; son of two schoolteachers; children: two sons. Education: UCLA Law School.
Career: Legal Services, Memphis, TN; EEOC; Public Defender’s Office, Memphis, TN, director; State Criminal Courts, Shelby County, judge, 1990-01; television show, Judge Joe Brown, 1998-.
Awards: Olender Foundation, Advocate for Justice Award.
Addresses: Judge Joe Brown, P.O. Box 949, Los Angeles, CA 90078.
Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and given the Olender Foundation’s Advocate for Justice Award.
Brown found himself in the national spotlight when, in 1998, he was appointed judge on the reopened case of the late James Earl Ray, who had been convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison for the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray always maintained he had not been alone in the killing. Although Brown was assigned to preside over the reopened case, he was later removed from the case by the Criminal Court of Appeals, which felt that he had demonstrated bias on the bench. After Ray died on April 23, 1998, the case was closed for a second time. Brown, believing that the full details of King’s assassination need to be brought to light, said later that he felt the case should not have been closed after Ray’s death.
While he was presiding over the Ray case, Brown appeared on Nightline, a late-night, nationwide talk show. His forceful personality impressed Larry Lyttle, the president of Big Ticket Television. At the time, Lyttle was looking for a real-life judge to star in an upcoming reality courtroom series and he offered Brown the job.
In 1998 Judge Joe Brown debuted as a tough, reality courtroom series presenting actual cases taken from anywhere in the nation. The show provided audiences with real trials and real solutions. The show caught on immediately, consistently topping the ratings charts. But on the heels of popularity came trouble. Although he was gaining a nationwide audience who seemed to delight in his no-holds-barred judgments and opinions, there were backstage rumors about poor attendance on the real-life bench. The television show required Brown to be in Los Angeles for taping three days a week every other week. Tennessee officials complained that Brown’s television court schedule left little time for his Tennessee court work, calling him, according to the New York Post Online Edition “out-of-town Judge Brown.”
In fact, Brown was absent more than any other judge in the criminal court, a full one-third of his required working days. Brown countered by claiming that he had merely, as he told the Memphis Flyer, “streamlined” things. He said he was doing the same amount of work on the bench, but it just took less time. He strongly denied that the missed days were the result of working on the television show. However, in April 2001, Brown resigned from the real-life bench, although his term did not expire until 2006. He said in the Big Ticket Television show description that he did so simply because he had “too many irons in the fire.”
Brown has professed shock at the publicity his show enjoys, and has thrived on the controversy that often swirls around him. The show’s popularity has boomed with an estimated more than five million viewers nationwide. An integral part of Judge Joe Brown’s success is the personality of its host. He possesses a flair for the dramatic that serves him well in his television court. Known for mixing justice with fairness, Brown has brought tough-love and streetwise sense to his TV courtroom.
Most of all, audiences have admired Brown’s creative sentencing. To Brown, creative sentencing is far more effective in some cases than sending someone to jail. Brown has said that jail is simply the easy way out for some people. A place to stay, food, and recreation sometimes do not seem so bad. Brown has attempted to ensure that jail is not an attractive option. Sometimes, Brown said in the Big Ticket Television show description, “something more is called for.”
His method of sentencing first-time nonviolent offenders is especially noteworthy. “I tried not to sentence anyone in the conventional way if I could think of a better way to get their attention,” Brown said in the Big Ticket Television show description. Toward that end, Brown once ordered a writer of bad checks to write an apology. The catch was that the apology had to be written 100,000 times! On another case, a convicted burglar was obliged to invite his victim into his own home so that the victim could choose any item he wanted to take away.
In following up on his cases and through his tough-love approach to sentencing, Brown has demonstrated that he truly cares about the people who stand before him in court. In the show description from Big Ticket Television, Brown explained his philosophy of life: “People need to be humane, kind and caring to each other. This country should be brought together—black, white, brown, yellow, red, whatever—and America needs to be promoted so we can remain the best in the world. That’s what I’m about.”
Memphis Flyer, August 21, 2000.
The Judge Joe Brown website, http://www.judgejoebrown.com
Additional material for this profile was provided by Big Ticket Television and from the Judge Joe Brown show description.
—Rose Blue and Jennifer M. York
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