Still in Session
Former Detroit bad boy Judge Greg Mathis is still going strong after 15 seasons of reality TV
Illustration by Melinda Josie
First up is the tall, engaging audience producer from Mount Clemens, Corey Wells. As he surveys the 60 eager faces in the familiar-looking soundstage inside Chicago’s WMAQ-TV, in cheerful but uncompromising tones, Wells lays down the ground rules for the day.
No talking. No looking down. No candy or gum chewing. And absolutely no falling asleep, or even appearing sleepy. “If you look asleep we’ll have to come get you out during the taping,” Wells warns. “You can’t be asleep on national television, OK?”
Next comes Doyle Devereux, the actor cleverly disguised as a bailiff. Of all the bailiffs on all the TV court shows, no one enjoys more airtime or sidekick stature with his jurist than the cowboy-slim officer on Judge Mathis, evidenced by the thunderous ovation that greets Devereux’s arrival.
“The show is real, the cases are real, you guys are real,” he says. “If there’s something that could be a little fake about this show, it’s me.”
The litigants take their respective podiums; Devereux bellows “All rise!” The black-robed gentleman strides toward his bench through a side door. We are in the gallery for a taping of Judge Mathis, and it seems weird not to break into wild applause when the show’s namesake makes his first appearance, but Devereux has instructed us not to.
After all, this is a courtroom.
Greg Mathis, onetime Detroit bad boy made very good, the former 36th District Court judge who rules the court of public opinion, has survived and thrived for 15 seasons in a danger zone far more cutthroat than the East Side projects of his youth: reality TV.
As Judge Mathis was set to begin a round of fresh episodes in September, every telecast is seen by more than 2.2 million people on more than 150 stations in the U.S. In most markets the show airs twice each weekday — including in Detroit on CW50.
With more than 2,000 episodes under his gavel, Mathis has the second youngest demographics among all court shows — impressionable viewers who may see his gangs-to-glory transformation as inspiration-slash-role model. From the bully pulpit of his electronic bench he teases and cajoles, lectures and consoles, often unleashing thunderous moral indignation.
Now that Oprah Winfrey is in semi-retirement on OWN and Steve Harvey’s daytime talk stardom still ascending, one could build a convincing case that no African-American makes a greater daily impact on America’s hearts and minds today than Judge Gregory Ellis Mathis.
And thousands of his Detroit friends and admirers have made the pilgrimage to Chicago’s Loop to confirm their support. Seated near the gallery’s front row this day is childhood buddy Margaret Jessup and her mother, Karen Payne. Jessup has known Mathis since “Peterson-Warren Academy in Inkster … one of the many schools he was kicked out of.”
Now his long-established routine is grueling, but condensed: He hears an average of 14 cases a day in rapid succession, twice a week for seven months. Grabbing a quick lunch in his small yet comfortable backstage office adorned with photos and awards, Mathis says that what sounds like an abundance of free time disappears quickly. “I’ve got a lot of demands on me for charity,” he says. “That’s my heart.”
Recently his heart took him to the White House, where President Barack Obama asked him to take part in a national initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. “I had the privilege of working with State Senator Obama regarding some criminal justice and youth issues here in Chicago, so he knew I shared that passion,” Mathis says. “The objective is helping at-risk minority youth obtain mentoring, quality education, and job opportunities.
“I think it’s one of the most necessary initiatives the president could open up to the minority community because that’s one of our biggest challenges — young people from fatherless homes,” Mathis says. “Particularly young men who learn a twisted sense of manhood from the wrong guys.”
Mathis believes the national effort could dovetail nicely with some of his Detroit-based programs like the Mathis Community Center, the church-centered MENtorship MENistry, and the Prisoner Empowerment Education and Respect Initiative (PEER), although he’s quick to add, “I neither seek nor receive any funding for any of the initiatives I have. I don’t receive a dime from any outside source.”
Mathis says people frequently ask how he deals with the menagerie of wild and crazy litigants parading before him on every show. “I tell them being from Detroit and sitting as a judge there, I have seen these people before,” he says. “In fact, in 36th District, they were a little more wild.”
Perhaps because of that experience, “I believe it’s a blessing to have this type of platform to make a difference,” Mathis says. “My No. 1 objective in life, period, is to change lives. My approach to the show is to one entertain, educate, and then try and inspire. I can’t be too preachy, so I try to weave in a lot of the social issues and solutions.”
Mathis maintains several homes but oddly enough not in Chicago, staying in hotels during taping season. “Because I never expect the show to go beyond another couple of years,” he says, laughing. “I told my wife, Linda, ‘We ain’t gonna get no condo for just a couple of years.’ That’s a running joke now.”