Ephriam, Mablean 1949(?)–
Mablean Ephriam 1949(?)–
Lawyer, television judge
As the judge on the number one-rated new television show Divorce Court, Mablean Ephriam, is by turns tough, compassionate, and very funny. It would certainly require a sense of humor to deal with the divorcing couples on her show, who scream, cry, swear, insult each other, and reveal the most intimate secrets of their failed marriages—all while the cameras are rolling.
“I imagine the divorce court process on television is cathartic,” Ephriam told the Los Angeles Times. “When you’re in (regular) divorce court, rarely do the litigants speak. Most of the courts these days don’t really care about the reasons why you’re divorcing—the underlying infidelity, the financial problems, the difficulty in raising children. So you really don’t get an opportunity to get rid of the pent-up frustration and anger and pain. This is a forum that allows them to do that.”
While a major part of the appeal of “Divorce Court” is taking pleasure in the suffering of others, Ephriam hopes that viewers will learn a lesson from these real-life marital conflicts. “One advantage of the show, for those who are married and going through some difficulty, is that they may see themselves,” she told David Crary of the Associated Press. “When you hear it from somebody else, you think, ’Do I say that? Is that what I sound like?’ People who are thinking of marriage might rethink constructively,” she continued.
Though not an actual judge, Ephriam is an attorney with more than 20 years of courtroom experience. “I don’t think they could have picked a better person,” U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, who has worked with Ephriam, told the Los Angeles Times. “Not only is she a very competent attorney, I know her to be warm, engaging and no-nonsense,” she added.
Information about Ephriam’s early life is scarce; unlike the couples on her show, she is very protective of her privacy, and in interviews has spoken primarily about her professional accomplishments.
Ephriam has said that as a child, she wanted to become a lawyer, but these ambitions were put on hold as she got married and raised four children. Her first law-related job was actually in law enforcement: she was a correctional officer at the Women’s Division of the
At a Glance…
Born Mablean Ephriam; divorced; four children. Education: B.A., Pitzer College; J.D., Whittier College of Law, 1978.
Career: Deputy city attorney, Los Angeles, 1978-82; founded own law practice, 1982; judge on Divorce Court, 1999-.
Awards: Distinguished Service Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, 1993; California Woman of the Year Award, 1995; Alumnus of the Year, Whittier College of Law, 1997.
Member: Co-founder, Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law, 1982; past president, Los Angeles’ Black Women Lawyers group; former member, Executive Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar and State Bar of California Family Law Sections.
Addresses: Office —Los Angeles, CA.
Federal Bureau of Prisons, on Terminal Island near Los Angeles.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, Ephriam decided to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer. Supporting herself and her family by working as a legal secretary, she attended the Whittier College of Law at night. She earned her law degree from Whittier in 1978.
After passing the bar, Ephriam spent five years as a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles. During this time, she helped found the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit of the Los Angeles city attorney’s office. “At the time, society was turning its back on domestic violence and pretending it didn’t exist,” Ephriam told the Los Angeles Times. “And when we filed a criminal case, the female victim would usually say, ’l don’t want to testify,’” she continued.
However, the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit would not dismiss a case just because the victim did not want to prosecute. This policy was intended to protect police officers as well as domestic violence victims, Ephriam told the Los Angeles Times. “More police were injured in response to domestic violence calls than anything else, and you put them in a precarious position when you do that,” she was quoted as saying. “Also, when you don’t follow through, it says to the perpetrator, ’You can do this again.’”
In 1982 Ephriam started her own law firm, specializing in family law, personal injury, and criminal law. Also in 1982, she co-founded a legal resource center in Los Angeles for women coping with domestic violence. The Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law, set up to compensate for legal aid cutbacks, now has 80 volunteer attorneys who assist 1,000 women every year. “She has a basic sense of justice and a way of seeing the truth of the matter that many lawyers do not have,” the center’s executive director, Betty Nordwind, told the Los Angeles Times in 1999.
During her legal career, Ephriam served as the president of Los Angeles’ Black Women Lawyers group, and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar and State Bar of California Family Law Sections. She also received several awards for her contributions to the community. In 1993, the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles gave Ephriam a Distinguished Service Award for co-founding the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. Two years later, she received the California Woman of the Year Award from the State Assembly’s 48th District. In 1997, Whittier College of Law, Ephriam’s alma mater, named her Alumnus of the Year.
After practicing law for more than 20 years, Ephriam heard that Twentieth Television was looking for a judge for a new version of Divorce Court. She had never planned on a career in television, but decided to give it a try. “I’m 50,” she was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “Why not change going into my second part of the century by doing something new and different?”
The role of judge may have been completely new, but Ephriam rose to the challenge: in fact, of the 100 prospective judges, she was the only one to get her audition right on the first try. This audition, as well as her substantial legal experience, won Ephriam the job.
While Ephriam is not an actual judge, she has filled in for judges in Los Angeles superior and municipal courts. She has also served as hearing examiner for the Los Angeles civil service commission. “I’ve sat as a mediator, and I’ve decided a lot of cases,” she told John Kiesewetter of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Judging is simply making decisions based upon the facts and the evidence presented to you, and coming to some logical conclusions based upon some law and fact. And that’s what I’ll be doing—judging. I don’t necessarily have the title of ’judge’ in order to enable me to do that.”
Divorce Court was not a new concept; in fact, the original version ran from 1957 to 1969, and a revival of the show ran from 1986 to 1991. Both of the early versions of the show featured actors working from a script; the fifties version provided work for such young, unknown actors as Alan Alda and Jack Nicholson.
The new Divorce Court, however, would feature actual married couples, who were in the process of divorcing, preparing to file for divorce, or legally separated. Ephriam would not dissolve the marriage, but would rule on one aspect of the case, usually a property dispute. Both parties, who would be paid an appearance fee of $500 each, were required to sign a binding arbitration agreement making Ephriam’s TV ruling final.
The new version of Divorce Court aired in 1999. Despite the competition from similar programs, the show became an immediate hit with viewers. “In a crowded field of court shows, Divorce Court has done well for a newcomer, trailing only Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown in the latest ratings of the genre,” David Crary wrote in an Associated Press wire story in early 2000. By the fall of that year, the show was rated number one among new syndicated shows.
While guests on many daytime talk shows are coached to say outrageous things, the litigants on Divorce Court are not—partly because it isn’t necessary. “In my practice, I tend to say in the divorce situation: You have the most intelligent, and the most upstanding people, becoming the most stupid people when they’re going through divorce, because they forget all about reason, they forget about logic,” Ephriam told Kiesewetter.
In one case, a couple was arguing over the ownership of a Beanie Babies collection. In another, the plaintiff was seeking not child support, but monkey support—money for food, diapers, and medicine for a pet monkey. In disbelief, Ephriam turned to the bailiff and asked, “They jivin’ me, right?”, prompting C. Ray Hall of the (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal to observe, “This may be the only recorded use of the word ’jivin” by a judge whose name ends in ’esquire.’”
In yet another case, a wife and her cross-dressing husband were fighting over a woman’s mink coat. Ephriam decreed that they should each try the coat on, and she would award it to the one who looked better. The winner turned out to be the man. “When you hear the stories, you have trouble holding back the laughter or the tears or the anger,” Ephriam told David Crary of the Associated Press. “Some of the stuff is just utterly ridiculous.”
While Divorce Court has been an unqualified success, Ephriam has encountered controversy in other aspects of her life. In August of 2000, she was hit with a malpractice suit. A former client claimed that Ephriam failed to present relevant evidence in a child custody case, and did not inform the client of a court hearing.
Like the litigants on Divorce Court, Ephriam herself is divorced—but she could never imagine airing her grievances on television, she told Kiesewetter. “I had a very amiable divorce. My ex-husband and I were able to sit down and decide what we were going to do. I’m quite private in my dealings.”
And despite the number of failed marriages Ephriam sees, she remains a strong believer in marriage, she told the Los Angeles Times. “I think it’s wonderful. And I hope to do it again sometime soon. I’m not jaded,” she was quoted as saying. “When you’re married, you have a partner, a friend, someone to talk to, to laugh with, to share your joys, your disappointments, your fears, your successes, all of that,” she concluded.
AP Newswire, February 17, 2000.
Cincinnati Enquirer, August 30, 1999.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), January 6, 2001.
http://www.pub.umich.edu/daily (Los Angeles Times story reprinted in the Michigan Daily, Sept. 13, 1999)
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