Growing up, long before the thought of going to law school had ever crossed my mind, I got all my legal knowledge from one source only: the Honorable Judge Wapner of The People’s Court. He was smart, he was fair, he eventually ended up with his own root beer, and he dispensed justice every afternoon directly from my TV set. What could be better?

My childhood self would undoubtedly have been crushed to learn that — brace yourselves, people — notwithstanding the robe and the realistic courtroom set, The People’s Court isn’t really a court at all. (Nor are the courts of Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown, for that matter.) And now a real judge from a real court has stepped forward to say so definitively.

Okay, yes, so we got the disclaimers at the beginning of The People’s Court, which over the years have included variations on the statement that, “Both parties in the suit have agreed to dismiss their court cases and have their disputes settled here, in our forum: The People’s Court.” But back when I loved this show, it was before the reality TV boom: there was no partially scripted The Hills — yes, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine, what of it? — in which the characters ride into a Hollywood backlot sunset just to teach me the lesson that TV reality and actual reality might be different. It was called a Court, it looked like a courtroom, I assumed it was a court. I mean, there was a bailiff! He did the whole swearing-in thingy at the beginning of each case!

Justice Francois A. Rivera of the Brooklyn Supreme Court isn’t convinced. On July 8, 2010, he entered a decision in a case brought by a woman seeking to annul a determination by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development that she had no succession rights to an apartment in a housing development. Justice Rivera annulled the decision as requested, concluding that the hearing officer’s decision was not rationally based because the hearing officer had relied in large part on “petitioner’s ‘compelling admissions’ in her ‘testimony’ ‘sworn’ before ‘The People’s Court’ television show.” You can almost hear the scorn in Justice Rivera’s statement that:

“The People’s Court” is not a court, body, agency, public servant, or other person authorized by law to conduct a proceeding and to administer the oath or cause it to be administered. It is a television show with a production manager, crew, support staff, editors, and actors. Like any other television show, it is supported by its advertisers and its objective is to entertain its audience. It is also edited to allot time for commercial breaks and to complete the show within a designated broadcast time slot. The show has voluntary participants, who are not actors, who speak about disputes on a stage that resembles a court. The words and statements uttered by these participants are not testimony. They are neither sworn nor reliable. Further, the statements made on the show have no more probative force than the words of an actor reading from a script in a play. The only difference between the two is that the participants of the show may freely ad-lib their lines.

Ouch (unless you’re Judge Judy, I suppose — real judges don’t get to make $45 million a year!).

So if The People’s Court isn’t a court, what is it? To participate in the show, the parties must sign an agreement to dismiss their court claims and submit the case to binding arbitration. This changes the rules from what they would be in a normal small claims court case. Whereas a losing defendant in small claims court in California can appeal the decision to the Superior Court, there is no appeal process in arbitration; the decision of the arbitrator sticks. And where in court, the losing defendant pays the winning plaintiff, in The People’s Court the show pays any judgment, and pays both parties a nominal amount for their time regardless of the outcome. (This compensation structure was the subject of a 1989 lawsuit against the show’s producers by a litigant who alleged that “I was only willing to appear because they guaranteed me $1,500. I never would have appeared on that show and made a fool out of myself for a chintzy $250.”)

The People’s Court isn’t the only show embroiled in controversy over how “real” it is. Earlier this year, a former plaintiff on Judge Joe Brown sued the show in Los Angeles Superior Court for fraud and slander. The plaintiff alleged that producers of the show orally represented to him that Brown was a “legitimate judge” (notwithstanding the agreement he signed to submit the case to binding arbitration), and that Brown — who is not actually licensed to practice law in California — had defamed him by stating that the plaintiff was a “sucker” for lending the defendant money, and that he was just “trying to get nookie.” (Perhaps the show’s first line of defense should have been that these statements were true?) Just last month, THR, Esq. reported that the LA Superior Court judge issued a tentative ruling striking the complaint. One of the grounds of the ruling was that Brown’s comments were subject to the “litigation privilege.” California’s litigation privilege, contained in Civil Code section 47(b), creates immunity from a defamation suit for statements made during a “judicial proceeding.”

At first blush, this decision seems completely inconsistent with Justice Rivera’s finding thatThe People’s Court is not a court (which he would presumably extend to all similar shows). Does this ruling mean that judges in La La Land (not to be confused with Law Law Land) are just more inclined to accept TV as reality than judges in New York? Not necessarily. Under section 47(b), arbitration is considered a “judicial proceeding” just like a court case. Therefore, when the Judge Joe Brown plaintiff submitted to binding arbitration with Brown, he also waived his ability to sue the show for slander based on any of Brown’s statements.

Take-home message of the day (other than “don’t believe everything you see on TV”)? If you have a small claims action, and are more interested in vindicating your rights than in making a TV appearance, skip the courtroom reality shows and head for your local courthouse. Less sexy, perhaps (unless like me, your local courthouse is in Beverly Hills, and Lindsay Lohan has a court appearance that day), but at least you’ll never have to worry about another judge finding that your case wasn’t heard in a “real” court.