A requiem for “Judge Mathis”
“Judge Mathis” is ending. But Greg Mathis’ time as a judge on TV isn’t over.
When it was announced that “Judge Mathis,” the long-running court show hosted by Greg Mathis, had been canceled after over 20 years on air, fans immediately expressed dismay upon hearing the news — and at having to let their grandmothers know.
“I started watching Judge Mathis with my grandmother,” said Candace Rogers, a Miami-based attorney. Her grandmother was also the first person she called when the news about the show broke.
For many, “Judge Mathis” was more than a show you happened to catch while you were home sick and absent from school. Black viewers told me they would watch the show with their parents and grandparents, a communal experience growing up that they fondly look back upon.
“If I'm off from work and I'll go see my grandparents throughout the day, if ‘Judge Mathis’ is on, we'll sit, watch it, and laugh,” Rogers explained. “It’s definitely something that I used to connect with my grandparents.”
“Judge Mathis” isn’t the first show of its kind. There was already a long history of arbitration-based reality court shows, beginning with “The People’s Court” in 1981. “Judge Judy,” which premiered in 1996 and was led by former Manhattan judge Judith Sheindlin, revived the genre and became the longest-running courtroom show in continuous production. Judge Joe Brown was the first Black man to preside over his own courtroom television show.
However, Greg Mathis holds the crown as the longest-running Black male host on TV. First airing in 1999, the show was the first introduction to the courtroom for many young Black watchers. They saw themselves represented on the small screen and found in him an authenticity to which they could relate.
Mathis was raised by a single mother in Detroit. He grew up in the infamous Herman Gardens neighborhood in the 1970s, a public housing project known for crime and drugs. After becoming involved with the notorious Errol Flynns street gang and getting incarcerated, he was able to turn his life around and attend Eastern Michigan University, where he discovered his passion for politics. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy and would later become the youngest district court judge in Michigan history.
“He wasn't trying to be like some of the other judges, you know?” said Terry Dodd, an Illinois resident who was a frequent member of the show’s audience. “Hardly any judge talks about their background like Judge Mathis does. That’s what I like about him.”
In watching “Judge Mathis,” Dontrey Tatum said the show inspired him to pursue a career in the legal field. “I resonated with him because he, like much like myself, did not grow up in the best environment, and I was able to see what he could overcome,” said Tatum, an attorney in the Dallas area.
“Seeing an African-American man overcoming so much to become a practicing attorney and future judge made me see there’s more I could personally become and could do in life because of him.”
Mathis attributed that authenticity in part to why his show was able to remain on air for so long. “I think the main reason we can point to is my ability to relate to all the viewers and their reality, and that in many instances I have the same sensibilities as they do, as a result of having lived their reality,” he told Parade in 2022. “That’s what I think is the uniqueness I bring to the court genre.”
“Judge Mathis” is the latest show to fall victim to the mercurial daytime syndication environment, with “The People’s Court,” “The Real,” and “Dr. Phil” seeing cancellations over the past year.
But all is not lost. Fans will still be able to see Mathis bring his wisecracking humor and firm sense of justice to TV. Several days after the cancelation, Byron Allen’s media group swooped in and announced it will launch “Mathis Court with Judge Mathis” this coming fall. The show will be available for syndication.
“For years, I’ve proudly watched Byron Allen build a first-class global media empire. After 24 years on the air, I can’t think of a better company to work with to create my next great chapter,” Mathis said in a statement. “Byron and I are both from Detroit and it’s exciting to see him build the Motown of court programming by bringing together all of my fellow judges from his eight court shows — who are the best of the best.”
The news is a breath of fresh air for longtime fans of the judge who weren’t quite ready for him to hang up his robe. However, the jury is still out on if the new iteration will continue to see him calling unsuspecting people crackheads.
For many, Greg Mathis offered Black viewers their first look inside the courtroom. But even though the show known as “Judge Mathis” has come to an end, younger audiences will soon be able to tune in and see him preside over the courtroom in the unique way only he can.