Devotees of daytime television know her simply as Judge Cristina, the charismatic jurist behind television’s Cristina’s Court. But since you likely aren’t that familiar with the mid-day television landscape, presumably being a busy lawyer and all, meet Cristina Perez, an Emmy Award-winning lawyer who dishes out justice Hollywood-style.
Name and current title?
Cristina Perez: Television judge currently on Cristina’s Court, partner at Perez Gonzalez, and most importantly, wife and mother.
Did you practice law before becoming a TV judge?
Yes, and I still do. Perez Gonzalez provides comprehensive legal services to individuals and businesses in civil, intellectual property/internet, business and litigation as well as immigration, athletics and entertainment matters.
Whittier Law School.
Are you the most famous graduate of your law school?
It depends on how you define famous. I just might be one of the happiest and most grateful, though.
You’re the first Spanish-language judge to switch over to English. Was it hard to crossover?
I actually found crossing over from Spanish to English to be a pretty natural transition. Both types of shows have the same common denominator—real people airing their real life problems and looking for a solution. The human element of the cases I hear transcends language.
A lot of lawyers find their jobs to be terribly boring. How do you make a show about petty legal squabbles entertaining?
Are you kidding? There is nothing boring about my job—on the show or in real life. I have the privilege of hearing people’s most personal, funny, heated and emotional life stories and then using the law to come up with some sort of resolution. How could that ever be boring?
When did you know that you wanted to be a television judge?
When the television network offered me the job! I’m only partially kidding. The thought had honestly never occurred to me until I was offered an audition in 1998 in Los Angeles, along with several other attorneys and judges, for a new, locally broadcast court show to be aired on a local Spanish language network. I got that job, La Corte del Pueblo, then another on Telemundo, La Corte de Familia, and then Cristina’s Court came along, which airs on the FOX Network and its affiliates. I was not looking to become a television judge, but once the opportunities came along, I embraced each one, enjoyed every moment and have never looked back.
What was it like to win a Daytime Emmy? Does it matter, or are awards kind of silly?
It was amazing. The award is a validation from my peers in the television industry that they respect what we’re doing on Cristina’s Court. We have an incredible group of producers, starting with my executive producer, Peter Brennan. It was an enormous honor to even be nominated (not to sound like a cliché, but it’s so true), and winning was icing on the cake.
When they announced my name, I honestly don’t remember it. I think my brain went numb and then my legs followed. In fact, my husband had to remind me to get up and go get the award!
How does being a TV judge work? Are the cases real? Are your rulings legally binding?
Yes, the people are real, the cases and legal problems are real, and the decisions I issue are legally binding on the parties. The major difference between TV and real life is that with the time constraints of a 30-minute show, the cases have to be edited for length.
Has a lawyer ever appeared as a litigant on your show? How did that go over?
Yes. Let’s say it was interesting.
What’s the weirdest case that has ever come before you? Have you ever had a moment when you just wanted to tell both sides that they had been outrageously stupid?
Usually, many litigants do not come to Cristina’s Court for the money alone. They want their position validated. They feel wronged and angry and they want to be validated in front as many people as possible. Each is convinced he/she is in the right so they think they are going to show their opponent once and for all they were right. They want it to be a public event. One crazy case that comes to mind is a wife accusing her husband of infidelity for having a relationship with his inflatable doll.
The commercials for your show tout your sex appeal, and you’ve hosted an advice show on Playboy Radio? Are you America’s sexiest jurist?
I think the jury’s still out on that one. I was a special legal host for Playboy Radio’s Afternoon Advice for a short while. It was fun, and we discussed relevant and current issues and cases.
What does a TV judge usually wear under the robe?
Wouldn’t you like to know? I can’t speak for my colleagues on television, but I dress just as professionally as I would in a court of law. Sorry if I disappointed you.
Your show will stop running new episodes this September. What will you do next?
The producers of my show are negotiating with new outlets for the fall of 2009. In addition, I have a couple of projects pending and have just signed to write my second book. Most importantly, I’ll do what I’ve always done in my life—stay true to myself, always do my best in everything I do, and take advantage of every opportunity that God blesses me with. Like everyone else, I’ve never been able to predict what will happen next in life so I just always make sure that I see the opportunities when they come along and take advantage of each. And, of course, always listen to the advice of my parents because they’ve never led me wrong.
Back in the day, it used to only be about judge Wapner and The People’s Court, but there are a half-dozen small claims court shows on the air these days. Why do you think that is? Are we becoming a nation of complainers?
Judge Wapner was the best, and he set the standard. However, I do think that audiences are fascinated by court shows because they take us through stories of real human drama. Stories driven by jealousy, betrayal and sometimes evil. But also, stories of great courage and generosity. Stories of families divided can be epic tragedies, and on Cristina’s Court, we have seen several of these.
The TV court show is a courtroom where the entirety of the human condition is played out—broken hearts, angry ex-wives and ex-husbands who seem to want to punish each other for the rest of their lives. The drama is endless and quite Shakespearean. In the world of reality TV, court shows are the ultimate unscripted drama and the people in them tell them with passion.
Also, a court show is relatively easy and inexpensive to produce. Once they find a show format that works and generates viewers, the natural instinct is to replicate it. Look at reality shows in general. It seems like every other show on television is a reality show. I don’t know if we’re a nation of complainers, but I do believe that we are a nation of independently minded, passionate individuals with strong personal principles. Therefore, when people feel like someone else is challenging their principles, it’s their natural instinct to defend themselves. I think it’s great that we have so many forums for people to do this in.
Was there ever a moment when you said, “I need to get the f*** out of here and do something else?”
There are frustrating moments in any profession, especially the high-profile, high-intensity television industry where decisions are made and leave you asking what just happened? In addition, in the legal profession, there are also moments that are frustrating where you sometimes have to climb mountains to protect your client’s best interests. The practice of law is very intense and personal because you are advocating for people’s lives. At the same time, this is what is so thrilling about the law. I take it personally because my parents were immigrants to our country, and I know what they went through to create this life for our family. At the end of the day, it comes down to remembering who you are.
You live in a state that has had two actors who went on to become governor. Any plans of taking your celebrity into the political realm?
No way. If I wanted to run for governor, I should have done it back during the recall election when everyone and their mother came out of the woodwork to run. In all honesty, I am extremely happy in my current line of work, and I don’t think I would be nearly as happy as a politician.
You’ve had a few cases involving what Kathy Griffin might call D-List celebrities (The Naked Cowboy who plays in Times Square and Angie Dickinson, to name a few). How do these cases come about? Why are we so obsessed with the nexus of celebrity and the law?
As for why we’re so obsessed with celebrity and the law, I think that has a lot to do with fallibility. Sometimes, with all the celebrity entertainment magazines and television shows, it’s easy for people to perceive high-profile individuals as “superhuman” and somehow incapable of making mistakes. So, when they do make mistakes and show their vulnerability—that they are human beings just like the rest of us—people have the urge to jump on them like a pack of wolves. (You know I’m not calling people wolves, right? I just mean that it’s such an event when a celebrity makes a mistake and people become so fascinated by that because if celebs can have problems in their lives, then we don’t feel so bad when we face problems.) Also, there is a comfort in seeing a celeb being judged. It makes one accept that judgment is there for all of us.
Did you ever consider yourself a bitter lawyer?
Never. It’s not worth the time.
To learn more about Cristina Perez, visit her official website.