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July|August 2004
Crash Course By Jascha Hoffman
Rundown Jury By Noel C. Paul
On Your Marks. Set. Go Home! By Dana Mulhauser
World's Richest Bailiff By Brendan I. Koerner
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

World's Richest Bailiff

The silent star of Judge Judy's courtroom.

By Brendan I. Koerner

AT BARELY 5'2", Charles Manson never looked like a world-class athlete. But in the midst of his 1970 trial for the murders of seven people in a two-day frenzy, the man who described himself as "the mad dog devil killer fiend leper" performed an impressive feat: Wielding a pencil, Manson cleared the defense table in a single jump, landing just a few feet from the bench. Only a quick tackle by bailiff Bill Murray prevented Manson from stabbing Judge Charles Older. According to the account of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in his Helter Skelter, Murray was primed to act because he had a "sixth sense" that Manson was unusually edgy that October morning.

There are no homicidal hippie gurus like Manson on the syndicated TV show Judge Judy, of course, nor much chance of even a midsize melee breaking out—Judge Judith Sheindlin usually decides each small-claims case in 20 minutes or less. But for fear that a lippy defendant might try to "pull a Manson," Sheindlin has standing by her side Petri Hawkins-Byrd, the self-professed "world's richest bailiff." At 6'4'' and 240 pounds, Byrd refuses to reveal his salary. But consider that Sheindlin recently signed a four year, $100 million contract, and that Byrd has become nearly as iconic as his boss to the show's seven million viewers. Besides, the competition for "world's richest bailiff" isn't very stiff. The average hourly wage for a bailiff in the United States is $14.07.

Judge Judy tapes 50 days a year, on a Sunset Boulevard set that it shares with the knockoff Judge Joe Brown. (She's the Jewish Mother of TV judges, he's the Baptist Preacher.) Byrd's duties aren't onerous. He spends a fair amount of time doing crosswords that he affixes to an official-looking clipboard when the cameras are rolling. He also keeps on that clipboard a scratch pad where he jots down ideas for a screenplay he's developing (he wouldn't share the details) and verses for his hobby as a spoken-word poet. On occasion, when a plaintiff starts tallying up the damages she is seeking, Byrd will make a note of the numbers—Sheindlin, he confided, despite her recent jackpot, "doesn't work with figures real well."

Byrd toiled as a bailiff in Brooklyn during the late 1980s, guarding family court judges including Sheindlin. He was expected to remain stonefaced throughout the proceedings, lest an attorney complain that Byrd was revealing bias. But he couldn't resist doing the occasional impression, and his spot-on send-up of Sheindlin may be why his name stuck in her mind. In 1996, when Byrd was working as a high school guidance counselor in San Mateo, Calif., he read in Liz Smith's syndicated gossip column that his former boss had Judge Judy in the works. He sent a congratulatory note that included an offer to the effect of, "If you ever need a bailiff, my uniform still fits."

As the profession's de facto spokesman since she tapped him soon after, Byrd insists there's a lot more to the vocation than meets the eye. "It's a finesse job," he said. "It's a job where you use your brain more than you use your brawn."

By Byrd's account, a typical bailiff divides his time between being a "runner" and being a "bridge." As a runner, the bailiff moves lawyers and litigants into and out of the courtroom, shuttles paperwork between the clerk's office and the bench, and escorts prisoners from the lockup into the courtroom and back. As a bridge, he acts as the judge's bodyguard in the courtroom and carries paperwork between the attorneys and the judge. The highlight of the job comes when the bailiff receives the jury's verdict and hands it to the judge. "We talk to everybody—we talk to the lawyers, the judges, the litigants, the clerks, the guardians ad litem, the court reporters," said Byrd. "We're sort of the hub. . . . I've been in situations where lawyers will check with me about the judge's disposition"—mood—"and that will determine whether they'll ask for a continuance or whether they're willing to go to trial that day."

Byrd's duties aren't that grand on Judge Judy. Emotions get heated on the set—which resembles a typical state courtroom as decorated by IKEA—and the TV bailiff makes sure they don't get out of hand. These are, as the commercial-break voice-over intones, "real cases, real people," and the parties are contractually bound to abide by the judge's decision. Sheindlin is notorious for belittling litigants, especially those whose intelligence she finds underwhelming. Some take the verbal drubbings in stride; others try to match Sheindlin shriek for shriek. In one case in which a Detroit limo company was accused of ruining a bachelorette party by providing a faulty vehicle, a co-defendant insisted that the plaintiffs were at fault for packing in too many obese passengers.

"Liar!" yelled Sheindlin, using a word she employs frequently.

Byrd favors his own version of gunboat diplomacy. In a dispute involving a child who allegedly threw rocks at a windshield, cracking it, Byrd calmed down the agitated plaintiff by getting in her face and asking sternly, "Does it seem like you're losing?" When the woman gave a quick negative shake of her head, he added, "Good. Be quiet." End of problem.

After the show, before he retreats to his tiny dressing room, Byrd escorts the litigants to a red-carpeted area just beyond the set, where they offer the camera their reactions to the verdict. Byrd stands behind the parties, as they continue to try their case, often flinging insults back and forth. (A typical post-case comment, from one of the show's endless parade of wronged exes: "I don't care. She can have him!")

When the cameras stop rolling, Byrd regales the crew with old standby impersonations, including Billy Crystal's Borscht Belt wizard from The Princess Bride and Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. But he no longer whips out the Judge Judy impression that helped land him the job. No sense ticking off the golden goose in the black robe.

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