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January|February 2003
Almost Infamous By John Swansburg
A Lawyer's Limits By Jonathan L. Hafetz
Block Sender By Beth Taylor
Lone Star By Jordan Smith
Neolawisms By Adam Hanft
Off Target By James B. Jacobs
New War, Old Law By Stéphanie Giry

Almost Infamous

By John Swansburg

If Variety had a police blotter, it might look a bit like Celebrity Justice, a syndicated television series that premiered last September. Watch the show for a few weeks and you'll learn that Ivana Trump stands accused of stiffing a dressmaker in Arizona out of $200,000. You'll catch police "dash-cam" footage of country music's Marty Stuart taking a sobriety test. And you'll hear the story of 18-year-old Naturi Naughton, an ex-member of the R&B girl group 3LW, who is currently suing her former associates for dismissing her on the grounds that she was not "ghetto enough." (Court documents reveal that they had dubbed her "Ms. Two Parent Household.")

Celebrity Justice is a spinoff of the celebrity buzz vehicle Extra—which is itself a copycat of the original entertainment newsmagazine, Entertainment Tonight, or ET as it's known to roughly eight million nightly viewers. The show was launched last fall by Harvey Levin, who previously co-produced The People's Court, a program that gave small claimants their 15 minutes of fame. With Celebrity Justice, Levin aims to do the opposite, reporting on celebrities as they cope with many of the same legal problems that real people confront every day.

CJ, as the show christened itself during its first broadcast, hasn't had the ratings success of its older siblings, in part because the show doesn't share their enviable pre-prime-time niche. (In New York, CJ airs at 4 a.m., a lousy slot even in a city that never sleeps.) Nonetheless, the show was one of the highest-ranked syndicated programs that debuted last fall, in part perhaps because it has successfully mimicked the format of its forebears. CJ's host, Holly Herbert, has mastered the cheerily breathless demeanor that ET's Mary Hart has made the hallmark of the genre. It takes a certain aplomb to report that two cans of tomato paste have been confiscated by food inspectors at Britney Spears's New York restaurant or to refer to Prince as "the artist currently known as plaintiff," and Herbert does it as well as could be expected.

As a show about the law, however, CJ does have some distinguishing features. In a recurring segment called "There Oughta Be a Law," CJ producers accost celebrities on red carpets and ask them to complete the segment's title phrase. The early results betray a surprising fascination with traffic. Actress Naomi Watts feels there "oughta" be a law against parking space theft, while American Idol co-host Ryan Seacrest wishes he could prohibit motorcycles from weaving in and out of lanes on the freeway. Tony Danza decrees that "anytime anybody wants to merge into a lane, when you're driving, they should at least have to, just have to, just put their hand up, so as to say, 'Can I?' And there oughta be a law that other guy has to go 'Yeah.' "

CJ also chronicles celebrities who break the law, and the question the show returns to again and again is whether stars are unfairly singled out because of their stardom. The show's answer is yes (you wouldn't expect CJ to bite the hand that feeds it). CJ made this point most forcefully last fall with its coverage of the prosecution of Winona Ryder for shoplifting. CJ correspondent Ross McLaughlin sought out hard proof that Winona was getting a raw deal (or, as he put it, "if she was a Winona by any other last name, Ryder may have had an easier time"). He produced documents demonstrating that similar shoplifting cases involving non-celebrities had always produced misdemeanor charges, as opposed to the felony charges that Ryder faced. The discovery earned him visits to The O'Reilly Factor and Good Morning America.

CJ kept close tabs on the trial, reporting on the prosecution's efforts to admit prior bad acts—Ryder's rumored shoplifting at Barney's and Neiman Marcus—and on the actress's defiant facial expressions. Visitors to the CJ website during the trial could view official photographs of the items Ryder stood accused of stealing from Saks: a tank top, a pair of hats, several handbags, and a hair accessory. (Missing from CJ's gallery was the $80 pair of socks she allegedly lifted.) Ryder was convicted by a jury of her peers, including Peter Guber, the former head of Columbia Pictures who made Little Women and two other major films with the defendant. The crimes were vandalism and grand theft, but Ann Rundle, the prosecutor whose Caesarian closing statement ("She came, she stole, she left") helped convict Ryder, said she did not intend to ask that the actress serve any time.

The Ryder case was tailor-made for Celebrity Justice, but even that lawsuit—with its A-list defendant, its daily developments, and its reels of security camera footage—could take up only so many programming minutes. With five half-hour slots to fill each week, the show is often forced to stretch the definition of celebrity.

Last October, for instance, former child star Linda Blair (The Exorcist) was the subject of a CJ feature. Over the last dozen years, Blair has appeared in as many forgettable movies, including Prey of the Jaguar, Sorceress (a.k.a. Temptress II), Bedroom Eyes II, and Repossessed. These days, the show reported, Blair "is on a mission to blow the whistle on what she refers to as one of the last of America's deep dark secrets: pet theft." In the early 1980s, Blair owned a Jack Russell terrier named Sheba. One day, when Blair returned home, the dog was gone. For reasons that aren't totally clear, Blair assumed Sheba was stolen, not lost. So nowadays, when she isn't on the set of a straight-to-video thriller, she's teamed up with Chris De Rose, late of General Hospital, to take on this growing crime phenomenon. "Pet thefts have been reported in Oregon, California, and Connecticut as recently as last month," CJ reported. "They could take one dog; they could take the whole neighborhood," a wide-eyed Blair added.

There isn't a lot of celebrity in this story, and not a whole lot of justice either. In part that's because when it comes to the stars, no entanglement is too petty for the inquiring American mind. Like any tabloid, CJ exists to provide seedy human detail, and what better clearinghouse than the courtroom?

But CJ is also riding a zeitgeist of its own. Entertainment Tonight was born of a culture that produced John Hinckley Jr., the man who tried to kill the president to get Jodie Foster's attention. CJ, by contrast, was born of a culture that produced Phillip Young, who, according to a CJ report, has been arrested repeatedly for stalking the hosts of the QVC home shopping network.

Last spring, Fox reeled in 15 million viewers to witness Vanilla Ice (an ex-rapper) lace up the gloves to box Todd Bridges (an ex-actor). It wasn't a big jump for Warner Brothers to conclude that a show like CJ could round up a sizable audience to watch Renegade star Lorenzo Lamas and Playmate Shauna Sand duke it out in divorce court.

But while focusing on the human side of people who are already all-too-human may be a formula for ratings success, it also makes CJ less racy than depressing. In the celebrity galaxy, Linda Blair—and Pat DeMentri, and Vince Neil, and Gena Lee Nolin—aren't the kind of stars you can see with the naked eye. There's little to recommend tuning in to see their twinkle dimmed any further.

John Swansburg is the managing editor of Legal Affairs.

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