INTERVIEW: Judge Lynn Toler creates fictionalized drama about her life on ALLBLK’s ‘Judge Me Not’

Toler: ‘Almost all the cases you’ll see on the show are cases I’ve seen in real life’

Credit: ALLBLK

Credit: ALLBLK

Like many of her TV judge show peers, Lynn Toler was once a real judge. At age 33 in 1992, she was elected judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court, winning by just six votes.

Over the next decade, she tackled hundreds of assault, concealed weapons and domestic violence cases and created mentoring and intervention programs on the side.

Though Toler eventually became known as the tough-minded but ultimately caring TV judge on “Divorce Court” for 17 years and does marriage counseling on WE-TV’s “Marriage Boot Camp,” those early years on the bench helped define who she is today.

So Toler, now 63, wrote a scripted drama featuring a Black female judge who joins an Atlanta municipal court after being elected by six votes. This fictionalized version of her own journey became “Judge Me Not,” a series shot and produced in Atlanta and now available on the ALLBLK streaming series.

Chyna Layne (”Precious,” “Power Book III: Raising Kanan”) plays Zelma Jay Johnson, a thinly veiled version of Toler herself. Brett Dismuke, general manager of ALLBLK, offered the role to Layne without even an audition.

“I fell in love with Judge T’s story,” Layne said in a Zoom call with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Toler. “I felt like I already knew her from ‘Divorce Court’ and before this role even came up, I thought she was pretty, fun, fly. I would sometimes try to imitate her.”

Although Toler didn’t cast Layne, she was quickly sold on Layne’s skills and the resemblance between the two women.

This woman read my book,” Toler said. “It’s like she walked through my brain, gathered it all up and put it on her body and just displayed it. I feel like I could be her mother. That’s how much alike we look. That’s a sell. She’s a younger, grander version of me.”

“Definitely not grander,” Layne said. “But I had my hair chopped off to look like Judge T.”

“Not every sister is going to cut her hair off,” Toler noted. “We work hard to keep it as long as we do! For her to commit to a role like that, whoo!’

Toler wrote the eight scripts largely by herself. She wanted to show what it was like in those early years juggling her work, her children, her loyal husband and her own mental health and pill addiction issues. The first episode reveals how Toler felt largely unprepared for many aspects of being a judge when she first sat on the bench.

“They don’t train you,” Toler said. “They just put the robe on you. I was trying to convey all that.”

In real life, Toler’s longtime husband, Eric Mumford, was a dedicated and supportive spouse. She wrote Johnson’s boyfriend Darrell (Javon Terrell) to be a wee bit more complicated than that.

“I based him on another judge’s husband,” Toler said. “He was like catnip to women. My mother was crazy over him. He was a good dude who loved his woman but people just threw opportunities at him and every once in while, it hit him on the head.”

Mumford was her rock in real life, she said. “You would not know who I was absent my husband,” she said. “I would not have done any of this. I am shy. I tend toward depression.”

Sadly, her husband passed in December, and Toler had to take a break from the interview momentarily to gather herself after talking about him.

Layne said the responsibility of playing Toler made her focus even more as an actress. “It was always dignity, dignity, dignity in what we were doing on and off screen to make this project something Judge T would be happy with,” she said.

When Toler returned to the Zoom call, she said that her late husband “made me run for judge. He was my campaign manager. He made me take the job on TV. He kept me sane.”

She noted that municipal court is where the bulk of legal cases land, and in many ways, it prepped her for TV judging.

“It’s volume, it’s crazy, and it’s funny,” Toler said. “Almost all the cases you’ll see on the show are cases I’ve seen in real life.”

And Johnson’s pill problems on the show? “We made visual representations of what was going on in my mind. I didn’t take quite as many pills as is on the show, but emotionally, what she did and what she shows is 100% me.”

Toler said she wasn’t great at compartmentalizing her private life and the impact her rulings had on people.

“My husband used to call me the night stalker,” Toler said. “I’d be up all night walking the halls worrying if I did the right thing, especially in domestic violence cases. I took it seriously. Everybody I saw meant something to me.”

So she started programs in high schools to try to help people early. “I saw the limits of what I could do on the bench,” she said. “I felt I was doing a good job if I got people not to see me.”


“Judge Me Not,” available for ALLBLK subscribers