Interview with Judge Mathis

Greg Mathis, host of his long-running judge show "Judge Mathis," stopped by Atlanta earlier this month and I grabbed coffee with him at the Mansion hotel in Buckhead.

Mathis, 49, is affable in person but clearly does not embrace slackers. (He firmly castigates an associate for waking up late and not meeting me and him for the interview on time.)

He expressed concern that in Atlanta, his ratings were down because he had switched affiliates. Actually, he hadn’t switched affiliates. The CW affiliate, which has aired him since he debuted in 1999 when it was a UPN affiliate, changed his air times from 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., when viewership is generally lower. While he doesn’t pull in huge numbers, he has some of the strongest numbers of all shows on the CW during the day.

“All this week people thought I was cancelled,” he said, citing at least a dozen people he’s run across over two days.

When told his lead-in in the afternoon is “Street Court,” where court cases are held literally on the street, he scoffed. “It discredits the genre,” he said. “There’s no reality to what they’re doing.”

Mathis was in Atlanta to be a guest on Mo'Nique's talk show to discuss his campaign to help prisoners. He was in prison himself as a young man in 1978 (gun and marijuana possesssion) and likes to help out those who were in his shoes. He went to college but he said recidivism is still high: 67 percent return to prison within three years. He lectures prisoners, using himself and others as examples to give them "road maps to success."

Mathis said he himself was inspired by a jail visit by Rev. Jesse Jackson. He eventually worked with Jackson and is now the chairman of Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition board. "He convinced me to succeed," Mathis said.

He eventually became a district judge in Michigan before joining the TV judge world.

Mathis tapes two days a week seven months a year, 24 cases per week. (His hour-long show typically features four cases.) Over ten years, he’s taped more than 1,500 shows.

Stories haven’t changed much over the years. He said most involve family and friends borrowing money and not paying up. Like a small claims court, the maximum dollar amount is $5,000 and the show pays the winnings. Mathis never lends money to friends and family. He only gives money away but they need to explain why. He will then attach a lecture to the cash. “It’s almost shameful,” he said. “They know my reputation.”

He uses his judge show to “inspire people to overcome their obstacles. Often the litigant is leading a destructive or non-productive lifestyle. I’m able to give him or her a little guidance and direction, a little tough love and inspiration.” An example was a 17 year old who had been convicted 19 times as a juvenile. He challenged the boy’s macho attitude and told him to channel his energies properly. A year later, he was in community college and working full time. Some, of course, do end up in jail. he said. He can’t reach everybody with a single TV show.

He's had a couple of celebrities (or pseudo celebrities) on his show, including Frankie, Keyshia Cole's mom, who hadn't paid a promoter. (She won the case.). And he had former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks on once.

How long will he keep going with “Judge Mathis”? “People get tired of every show at some point. That point,” he said, “I’ll leave.” He said ratings were down a bit this year but he still gets about 1.5 to two million viewers a week in aggregate. He has a syndicated deal through 2011-12.

If or when he leaves, he said he may pursue public office so he can impact national policy.

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