Mathis, Greg 1960–
Greg Mathis 1960–
As one of the several real-life judges who have moved into televised studio courtrooms as hosts of reality-based dispute-resolution shows, Greg Mathis enjoys solid ratings for his hour-long Judge Mathis television show. But the no-nonsense jurist had already tasted a certain degree of celebrity in his hometown, Detroit, as a former gang member who went to law school and was eventually elected as a judge; his life story became the basis for a local play. Mathis has always stressed that it was the wisdom and faith of a kind judge that helped change his life. Before he turned 40-years-old, Mathis’s unusual life story had already attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. He negotiated a film and book deal with the Warner Entertainment Group, which created the Judge Mathis show.
Judge Mathis debuted in 1999 as one of several reality-based court television programs in syndication, and Mathis viewed the career move to television as part of a natural progression of his mission in life. “I had a commitment to changing lives,” he told Detroit News television critic Tim Kiska about his time on the bench of Detroit’s 36th District Court. “I think I was able to influence 15 to 20 people a week—a handful of lives. Now my inspirational justice might do the same thing for many more people in the living rooms of America.”
Mathis was born in 1960 in Detroit, one of four sons born to Alice Mathis. The family lived in one of the first federal housing projects in the United States, Herman Gardens, which by the time of his adolescence had earned a reputation as a tough, dangerous environment. Alice Mathis raised her sons there as a single mother, and worked two jobs—the midnight shift in a hospital as a nurse’s aide, and as a cleaning woman during the day—in order to make ends meet. From an early age, Mathis had a problem with discipline, and was even expelled from elementary school. He attended three different high schools before dropping out in the tenth grade. “I fell victim to the peer pressures that went along with the environment,” Mathis recalled in the Detroit News.
At the age of 15, Mathis became involved with an infamous Detroit gang, the Erroll Flynns. He quickly accumulated a juvenile criminal record for breaking and entering, purse-snatching, and shoplifting. When he was 17-years-old, he was arrested on a concealed-weapons charge and landed in the Wayne County Jail. His mother came to visit him there, and wept over the dismal turn his young life had already taken. “She told me she felt humiliated and hurt by my lifelong bad habits,” Mathis told the Detroit News. He promised he would mend his ways and, fortunately for Mathis, his case came before a Wayne County Circuit Court judge named Charles Kaufman. The judge gave Mathis a choice between entering a maximum-security prison in Jackson, Michigan, or earning his General Equivalency Degree (GED). He chose the degree path, and soon began studying for the GED.
At a Glance…
Born April 5, 1960, in Detroit, Ml; son of Alice Mathis; married to Linda (a school administrator); children: Camara, Gregory, Amir, Education: Eastern Michigan University, B.S., 1984; University of Detroit, J.D., 1988, Politics: Democrat
Career: City Council, Detroit, Ml, assistant to council member Clyde Cleveland, 1984-88; Office of the Mayor of the City of Detroit, manager of neighborhood city hall, 1989-93; admitted to the bar of the State of Michigan, 1992; chief of staff, Detroit City Council member Brenda Scott, 1993; attorney in private practice, Detroit, 1993-95; 36th District Court of the State of Michigan, judge, 1995-98; host of Judge Mathis, a reality-based courtroom show, Warner Brothers Television, 1999-.
Awards: Man of the Year, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1995; specialtri butes from the Michigan state legislature, from Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, and from the Detroit City Council, all 1995.
Member: Reclaim Our Youth, chair, 1993-, Young Adults Asserting Themselves (YAAT), founder and chair, 1986-, National Rainbow Coalition.
Addresses: Office —c/o Warner Brothers Domestic Television, 4000 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91522.
Mathis’s decision to turn his life around was strengthened by his mother’s death from cancer not long after he made his promise to her. He earned his GED, and applied for admission to Eastern Michigan University. “I got there on the university’s affirmative action program. My first couple of years at Eastern were tough,” he recounted in the Detroit News interview with Kiska. Mathis earned a B.S. degree in 1984, and had become involved in local Detroit politics. He often took the bus from college in Ypsilanti, Michigan, about an hour outside of Detroit, to the downtown offices of Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson, where he worked as an unpaid intern. Mathis also worked for the mayoral campaigns of Coleman A. Young, the city’s longtime mayor.
After graduating from Eastern Michigan, Mathis was hired as an assistant to another Detroit city council member, and began law school at the University of Detroit. He also co-founded an outreach program called Young Adults Asserting Themselves (YAAT) to help at-risk teens in the city find jobs. Mathis earned his law degree in 1988, and then passed the state bar exam. However, Michigan bar authorities were wary of his juvenile record, and prevented him from practicing law for four years. Mathis’s life story intrigued some in the entertainment industry, and he was approached about selling his story for a made-for-television movie. In the meantime, Mathis ran a neighborhood city hall and served as the chief of staff for another Detroit city council member.
Mathis eventually obtained his law license, and became an attorney in private practice in 1993. In 1994, he decided to run for a seat on the bench of the 36th District Court, Michigan’s busiest court. Mathis won the election, becoming the youngest jurist ever elected to the bench of this court, which is located in downtown Detroit. “I’m living proof that people can change,” he told Detroit News writer Kim Trent. “My being on the bench will show some of these hopeless black children that they can achieve, that they don’t have to be in the streets.”
Mathis spent three years as a judge, and always tried to provide the same guidance that Kaufman had given him. His inspirational story became the basis for a musical play, Inner City Miracle, which Mathis co-wrote with local playwright Ron Milner. The play, which featured several gospel-flavored numbers, chronicled Mathis’s life from his Herman Gardens childhood to his success as an attorney. “The story here to me is the mother who did all she could to raise four boys in the projects and instill in us a foundation of education and spiritual values,” Mathis told Detroit Free Press theater critic Lawrence DeVine. “But education and spiritual values, my mother taught me that; now we’re using a show like this to help take that to the new young.”
Mathis also related to DeVine that being a celebrity was a new experience for him, but he saw it as a continuation of his work with YAAT—which was the recipient of the show’s ticket revenues—and other youth groups. “I wouldn’t have wanted this except I thought it would inspire street youth to give up the street,” he said in the Free Press interview. “To give them hope. To encourage young single mothers to have hope, and to encourage people to respect and help those single mothers.”
In late 1998, Warner Brothers Domestic Television offered Mathis his own dispute-resolution show, which is filmed in Chicago and debuted on several stations across the United States early in 1999. Plaintiffs in Chicago’s small-claims court are given the option of allowing Mathis to decide their case on television. Judge Mathis is one of several reality-based court shows in syndication but, unlike the others, is one-hour in length. The show’s format allows Mathis to review and adjudicate four different cases on each show. “I often try and provide those who come before me with successful living advice, in addition to a sentence,” he told Detroit Free Press writer Darci McConnell. “When millions of viewers see that, hopefully they’ll be able to take some of the advice and apply it to their own lives.”
Back in his hometown of Detroit, Mathis has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the city’s mayoral contest in 2001. Married to a school administrator in Detroit, he is also the father of three children. Just before the school year ended in 2000, Mathis toured several Detroit schools and spoke before the assembled students. “I know the challenges they face and it’s really touching to inspire this group in particular,” Mathis told a reporter from the Detroit News, Jeneil C. Johnson, who accompanied him on one visit. “If they keep the faith and believe in themselves, they can achieve their dreams and lead the world.”
(With Ron Milner) Inner City Miracle (play), produced at the Masonic Temple, Detroit, 1997.
Broadcasting & Cable, January 11, 1999, pp. 42-43.
Detroit Free Press, November 10, 1997; December 28, 1998.
Detroit News, November 30, 1994, p. B3; November 12, 1997; February 3, 1998; January 6, 1999; September 11, 1999; June 9, 2000.
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