Currently in its 17th year, Judge Mathis, the nationally syndicated courtroom reality show, is the second longest running courtroom program behind Judy Sheindlin's Judge Judy. Judge Greg Mathis rose from the streets of Detroit where as a gang member he was incarcerated at the age of 17. This jail stint was enough to scare the future judge straight, and, with a promise to his dying mother, Mathis embarked on a different path in life, which resulted him not only getting a law degree but also led to a career on the other side of the courtroom bench when he became the youngest judge in Michigan's history, serving as a Superior Court Judge for Michigan's 36th district.
In 1999, Mathis moved away from real world courtroom dramas to embark on a new journey: this time as a television judge where he combines a refreshing mix of social commentary, humor and humanity. His use of the bench to provide resolution and counseling to litigants before him during each episode has catapulted Judge Mathis to the forefront of a national dialogue about real issues facing contemporary society.
In his efforts to reach out to youth and ex-offenders both in and outside of the courtroom, Mathis opened a community center in his hometown of Detroit—Mathis Community Center—and has assisted thousands of youth with his non-profit agency Young Adults Asserting Themselves (Y.A.A.T.), an agency that provides career, business start-up and job opportunities, as well as job training and college enrollment assistance.
When he isn't filming his show in Chicago three times a week, seven months out of the year, you will find Mathis on the front lines of advocacy and justice. In short, he not only talks the talk but also walks the walk in his tireless activism and charitable work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised segments of American society. We spoke with the judge recently about the origins of Judge Mathis, his most memorable moments, and his work outside the television courtroom.
Congratulations on your 17th year on the air. Did you ever dream that Judge Mathis would still be around today when you were taping that first show back in 1999?
JM: Thank you. Even though I’m a confident person and I was confident enough to leave my judgeship in Detroit to take a chance on television where 80% of the shows fail the first year, I wasn’t confident enough to think that it would go beyond five years. That’s what I gave myself, I said, “I’ll probably be doing this for three-to-five years before they get tired of me.”
How did the idea for the show come about? Was it something you were looking to do or were you approached?
JM: I was approached by [former] longtime Warner Bros. executive, Gus Blackmon, and he had read about me in the paper, and they said they were looking for someone to compete with Judge Judy. They thought they needed someone who the public would be receptive to, I guess is the way they put it. So he read about me and then came to my courtroom and viewed my adjudication in Detroit, then had me shoot a pilot. It was Gus Blackmon, who is still an executive producer.
When Gus first saw you in your real courtroom in Detroit, he was obviously happy with what he saw, but how much different was your behavior as an actual judge and what you do on the show?
JM: Well, I’m able to go outside the bounds of the code of judicial conduct on television, and I do so [laughs]. When I worked in Detroit as a judge I always went to the edge of that conduct code [laughs], because what you see on television really is my personality. However, as a sitting judge most states don’t allow you to be…um, so aggressive [laughs], and, some might say, colorful and rude in the courtroom.
In the world of television, going all the way back to the earliest days of the medium, there’s always been that balance of “entertainment” and “information.” Where do you see your show within that spectrum?
JM: I have a word for it: edu-tainment. My opinion is that before you can get through to a person and educate them, you must first get them to listen. So I get them to listen with my own unique form of entertainment and then once I have them listening I try and instill some educational and inspirational moments. But it’s television and the primary objective for the viewer is to be entertained, so we start there.
You’ve broadcast thousands of cases on Judge Mathis over the past 17 years, but do you have a most memorable case that you’ve heard, and why?
JM: The most memorable, and perhaps the most embarrassing, depending on the opinion of the viewer, is one where I shed tears. It was the only case where I shed any tears on air. It was a young guy who had left the street gangs of Oakland to move in with his aunt in St. Louis. Both of his parents had died of HIV/AIDS, so when he left the street gangs to move in with his aunt, he was bent on going in the right direction and he enrolled in the community college in that area.
He was suing his aunt’s husband, who had thrown all of his things outside because he came in after midnight, which was against the rigid uncle’s rules for a 24-year-old kid. So when I challenged the uncle of why he would throw his things out without a court order or why he would even do that period, he began giving harsh criticism of the kid. Talking about, “He ain’t nothing, he’s never gonna be anything, I threw the clothes out because he doesn’t need to be there anyway.”
I began to ask him things like, “Didn’t you think he could have mentored the young man? He’s fought his way out, when most young people don’t want to leave the street gangs, and you don’t want to give him any support? He’s in community college.” And he began to rage about the young man, “No, I don’t wanna help him. He has to get it on his own, he can go back to the street gangs.” So I began to admonish that guy because I had seen myself in the young man. I saw myself in having left the street gangs in Detroit and gone to college. But I had a supportive cousin who helped direct and mentor me. So I saw the opposite there, and it was so touching and compelling that in the midst of me going in on the uncle I shed a little tear there.
The good news is that I kind of inspired the young man using my example, gave him some direction, met with him after the case to give him some further direction and support, and he came back two years later and he was a youth minister at his church and had completed his Associate Arts degree and was working on his Bachelor’s degree.
What do you tell these young people as a way to help them turn their life around?
JM: In the crime and drug-infested communities, the most powerful weapon is not the gun, it’s the book. Because education is the way out of poverty. If you want to move into an area where there’s less crime, then you have to be able to afford it, and you can afford to live in a nicer neighborhood when you have a nicer job and you have a nicer job when you have a better education. So it all starts there.
I always advise them to drop their guns and pick up their books. Education is the key area and I think there’s dual responsibility there, where I think it starts with the states and the government to provide quality educational opportunity. And then it is the responsibility of the parent and the child to access that opportunity that has been provided. Unfortunately in today’s society that opportunity is not provided equally.
Let’s talk a little bit about your younger years when you were running with gangs on the streets of Detroit. What made you make the decision to leave that behind and ultimately find yourself on the other side of a courtroom?
JM: Jail [laughs]. Very clear answer. Jail. I had a weapons charge, charged as an adult at the age of 17, so I was jailed for seven months among hardcore, older criminals. That kind of was enough for me. Plus the pain I was causing my mother while she was sick at that time. So it was those two things, and then as I was saying earlier I had a cousin who helped me get into college after getting my general equivalency diploma. So it was that combination of, one: the deterrent of being punished with jail; and, two, the opportunity which allowed me to escape through education. That’s what changed everything. When I went to college, there were very few if any criminals there, so I had no peer pressure other than to succeed in college.
Knowing your own personal story, once you became a judge did you see jail as an effective tool to turn the lives of others around?
JM: When I was a sitting judge in Detroit I did things that were actually done for me. I essentially received a second chance, based on the charge and the penalty I could have suffered. With the weapons charge, I could have been punished for up to five years in prison. But I had requirements that I finish my high school education and have full-time employment, so that condition is what got me to enroll in getting my diploma—General Equivalency—and from there I went a little further.
So when I became a judge I would order those who came before me some type of corrective measure as a condition of their sentence. Even if it was prison, I would order that they receive drug treatment and show progress in that area as part of their probation or parole. And I would also attach the condition of completing their education if they had not already done so. I would always attach these types of conditions to their sentence that were designed to improve that person’s life. Probation, particularly for young people who weren’t involved in violent crimes, were the easiest sentences to attach these conditions that were designed to help change their lives.
Outside of the courtroom back then and outside of your television courtroom today, I must commend you for all the good works you do in impoverished communities around the country, with things like the Mathis Community Center in Detroit. Why is that so important to you?
JM: I think I’ve been uniquely blessed or positioned to have a great understanding of the causes of the poverty and the crime and the suffering that we see among the impoverished communities, and, as a result, I feel compelled to help folks in those circumstances overcome them because I was able to do so. I’ve lived that condition, I’ve lived that life, I know that struggle, and I know how to overcome it.
And next Saturday [January 30], I’m going to be holding a forum in Flint, Michigan to help the citizens who have been poisoned by the city’s water, and get justice, clarification and support. I’m looking forward to that, we’re taking thousands of bottles of water to distribute and then giving some trusted legal advice and to help mobilize for a little more justice from the government who caused this. That’s part of what I do almost every week or so, being involved in some type of activism or charity.
Seeing as February is Black History Month, who are the African-American leaders that most inspired you or who had the most positive impact on you?
JM: One of the reasons that I speak at schools and jails is that during the seven months in which I was in jail, Jesse Jackson came to speak in 1977. And I didn’t even know who he was. He was touring the country with his “I Am Somebody” speeches to uplift black youth and to get those incarcerated to turn their lives around. So when he came to visit at our institution I was so inspired that I told him that I wanted to work with him. He told me to go to college and that if I went to college and came back that I could work with him then. And that’s exactly what I did and that’s exactly what occurred. I finished college in ’83 and I went to work with him when he was running for President the first time in ’84.
I was directly mentored by him throughout my career and I’m now the Chairman of the Board of his organization, Rainbow PUSH. One of the privileges I got from that mentorship is the strategies and the understanding of the dynamics of society that he received under the tutelage of Dr. King, Martin Luther King, who was Jesse’s tutor and mentor. So Jesse Jackson is definitely the most influential public figure who has touched my life.
Last question: Do you watch the other two top television judges like Judge Judy or The People’s Court’s Marilyn Milian, and what would you say the big differences are?
JM: Yeah, I’m a fan of Judge Judy, so I watch Judy from time to time, and I catch Milian at times. There are certainly differences between Judy and I [laughs]. I think Milian and I are similar, but, like I said, I see big differences with Judy. I admire her ability to get away with what she says [laughs].