NEW YORK – John Roberts, Clarence Thomas or Ruth Bader Ginsburg don't immediately come to mind when many daytime TV viewers rate their favorite jurists. Think Judy Sheindlin, Joe Brown or Marilyn Milian.
For that audience, Jeanine Pirro is an important appointment.
The former suburban New York district attorney will join the crowded field of TV justice shows Monday, when "Judge Jeanine Pirro" premieres on the CW network. She'll try to settle small claims disputes in an entertaining fashion for an hour each weekday.
Her debut in photogenic robes was nearly two years in the making.
Pirro was contacted by Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Telepictures Productions, within a week after losing a bid for New York attorney general to Andrew Cuomo in 2006. McLoughlin had been scouting her for a while, not only in her job as Westchester County district attorney but also as a TV commentator on the O.J. Simpson trial and at Fox News Channel.
"I just found her to be really compelling," McLoughlin said. "She had a tremendous presence. I had always had her in the back of my mind."
A big future in New York Republican politics had seemed Pirro's destiny, but she was handicapped by a husband who was convicted of tax fraud. (They've since separated.) Before losing to Cuomo, her brief bid to challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton went up in flames.
While the suddenness of McLoughlin's call took her by surprise, Pirro said television was always in the back of her mind if politics reached a dead end.
"For everything there is a season, and I think that season is over," she said. "We'll see. I'm very happy now. Not to say I wasn't happy as a D.A. or a judge, but this is a very nice life. It's a different mountain for me. I love learning about it."
Do well, and it can be a very nice life. "Judge Judy" Sheindlin, who dominates this genre the way Oprah Winfrey dominates hers, was estimated by Forbes magazine to have a net worth of $95 million.
There were shows like "The People's Court" with Judge Wapner and "Divorce Court" in television's past, but Sheindlin made it a category of its own. There will be about a dozen court shows on the air this fall, said Bill Carroll, an expert in the syndication market for Katz Television. The ratings for "Judge Judy" nearly double those of Brown, her closest competitor.
The format is "the best of a talk show and a game show and it allows for distinctive personalities," he said. "Whoever the judge is, you know what they're like right away."
Pirro appears to have a strong enough personality to pull it off, Carroll said. Knowing that her show is on at the same time every day across all CW stations can be a big advantage over syndicated shows, which are frequently shown at different times on different network affiliates across the country, he said.
The CW is also making "Judge Jeanine Pirro" a centerpiece of its new afternoon lineup, so its executives have a real interest in seeing the show succeed, he said.
If you're a fan of court shows, Pirro's version will look familiar. One wrinkle is "Pirro's Principles," where she will explain certain principles of the law. Pirro said she hopes to "peel back the layers of the onion" to find out stories behind the court case; in one early case, she finds out that two participants had been rape victims and their cases weren't adjudicated.
"People don't realize that they're in a position to drive their own cases," she said. "You have a right to demand justice, to insist on justice. The system is there for you."
She believes viewers tune into court shows to learn as well as to be entertained.
"They want to see conflict and they want resolution," Pirro said. "I think people are desperate for swiftness and certainty and they want justice and they want it to move quickly. My nature is as a quick New Yorker."
Presumably, Pirro is becoming more adept at the medium than the moment that killed her campaign against Clinton would indicate. She was announcing her candidacy when a page of her speech was misplaced and she stood, speechless, for an excruciating 32 seconds.
McLoughlin said Pirro has exceeded expectations in the shows she's taped so far.
A fast-talking New York woman not afraid to tell you what she really thinks has certainly been a model for success in this genre. It wouldn't be a bad persona to have established for when Sheindlin decides she's heard from enough clueless defendants.
"Jeanine is tough but I don't see the comparison to Judy," McLoughlin said. "I think Jeanine has that other dimension. You can see the compassion in her."
These shows are all about personality -- you tune in because you like the judge, tune out because you don't, Pirro said.
She's not Judy, she said; she's Jeanine.