Mary Ann Cooper
Special to TelevisionWeek
Perennial favorite “Divorce Court” has been a presence on television off and on since the original show premiered in 1957. Three separate incarnations of the show have racked up a combined total of almost 25 years on the air, with the latest version now gearing up for its eighth season. For this fall the show has a new judge ready to wield the gavel-one who’s no stranger to courtrooms on or off the air.
Lynn Toler, a lawyer who served as an elected judge on the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court in Ohio, will be doling out justice on the Twentieth Television syndicated series, taking over from Mablean Ephriam, who has been on the bench for seven seasons.
Ms. Toler told TelevisionWeek she is ready to rule. “The first thing that I won’t try to do is be Mablean,” she said. “She had her own distinct and successful style that I would never try to copy. But by the same token I am not going to come in there and turn everything upside down.”
Fans of courtroom series already know what Ms. Toler, a seasoned veteran of the trials and tribulations of TV justice, will be serving up from the bench. An alum of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, she took a leap of faith and packed up for Hollywood in 2001 after being selected as a judge on another Twentieth Television syndicated justice show, “Power of Attorney.”
Looking back on that decision, she acknowledged that she took a risk leaving Ohio.
“If you were to ask my mother she would tell you that that my trip to Hollywood was occasioned by a sheer moment of madness,” she said. “It was, according to her, a pre-menopausal, midlife crisis kind of a thing for me to do, and I am not altogether sure she was wrong.
“At first, I just thought it was a hoot to be asked and I never thought I would leave the bench. But after a while I thought to myself, you only live once, and how many people get this kind of opportunity? So I closed my eyes and jumped.” Then she added, “And yes, I was scared to death!”
After her stint with “Power of Attorney” ended and before she was tapped for “Divorce Court,” Ms. Toler started tuning in to shows about justice and became especially interested in what was going on in front of the bench.
“While I was a sitting judge I never watched [court shows] because I was working when they were on,” she said. “But since that time I have watched all of them at one time or another. I don’t really have any favorites. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t watch to see the judges as much as I watch to see the people who come before them. I find human behavior routinely amusing and occasionally alarming.”
If “Divorce Court’s” impressive history is any indication, viewers are just as interested as Ms. Toler in human behavior. The original “Divorce Court” premiered in 1957 and thrived for 12 years in daily syndication with Voltaire Perkins as the presiding justice. It returned to the air in 1985 with William Keene-also known for judging the William Bonin “freeway killer” trial- presiding. That version was on the air for five seasons.
The reality show explosion of the late 1990s made “Divorce Court’s” most recent revival a no-brainer. But this time, instead of using actors to depict divorce cases loosely based on real life, the current version of “Divorce Court” premiered in 1999 with real people and actual cases.
Still, it’s the personality of the judge that shapes public perception of the many court shows on the air. So does Ms. Toler see herself in the tradition of a Judge Wapner or a Judge Judy?
Both, Ms. Toler said. “I sincerely hope that I can touch both extremes and every station in between,” she said. “I have done my share of both laughing and crying on the bench in Cleveland. I can be as soft as oatmeal and as tough as nails. I understand, however, that my clientele remember me best for my stern, motherly lectures. I am an old-school Mama’s girl who believes in the value of what mama used to say. You’re going to hear a lot of that.”
And what advice does she have to help those who will appear in her courtroom avoid those “stern, motherly lectures”? Ms. Toler said litigants would be wise to remember that silence can be golden. The biggest mistake people make in court, she said, is, “They talk too much and listen too little. They spend an inordinate amount of time explaining why they did what they did without a willingness to examine why it didn’t work.”
While there is a difference between the way she holds court on and off camera, justice is justice no matter if it’s Hollywood or Cleveland, according to Ms. Toler. “TV or not, these are real people with real problems,” she said. “I am going to be just as serious about helping them get to where they need to be as I was in my Cleveland courtroom. And even though I was known to have a sense of humor and invigorating courtroom style in Cleveland, there are some things I have always wanted to do and say that I couldn’t on the bench in Cleveland because even though it would be apropos, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But now I get to say all that stuff.”