Law & Order

I’m a Law & Order fan. I love all of them: Original, Criminal Intent, Special Victims, and Trial by Jury. I also like the re-runs—even when I’ve seen an episode before there are always enough twists and turns and details to get my attention.

I’ve often gone to watch scenes being filmed in lower Manhattan. A neighbor in my building is a script checker for the show and so on occasion I’ve also been able to sneak a peek at draft scripts left in the recycling bin.

Though in real life no criminal case is resolved in one hour, Law & Order is pretty good on the substance of the law. The precedents mentioned are typically real cases. The rulings by the judges (at lightening speed) are often correct. I tell my students they can learn a lot by watching.

One curiosity is that most of the judges on Law & Order are black women. This is not realistic. Even in New York City black female judges are few and far between.


Why, then, are so many black women the judges on Law & Order? Is it because they can more credibly deliver sassy rulings that help the plot along? Are the show’s creators hoping to inspire black girls to go to law school and then take the bench? Are there a lot of under-employed black women actors?

I suspect that the reason there are so many black women judges on Law & Order is that so many of the criminals on the show are well-off white people—the pharmacist who poisoned a customer; the high school teacher who molested a student; the stockbroker who raped a secretary; the CEO who needed his wife’s life insurance and so hired an assassin.

By having black women sit in judgment of these defendants, Law & Order turns upside down the existing racial imbalances in our criminal justice system. Wander into a criminal courtroom and the judge will typically be a middle-aged white guy—and the defendant black or Hispanic. Our prisons are filled with racial minorities.

The casting imbalance on Law & Order imparts a powerful lesson. It gives its white middle-class audience a glimpse of what, for other people, criminal justice is like.

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7 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    The casting imbalance on Law & Order … its white middle-class audience a glimpse of what, for other people, criminal justice is like.

    Almost. They need to add a a black victim and an all-black jury – making sure the black jurors don’t look the white defendant in the eye. They should then do two scenes.

    In the first, a black juror is shown crossing the street when she sees a white man approaching. In the second, the juror (as the judge smiles and nods approvingly) answers that the defendant’s race will play no role in her ability to be impartial because “I only judge people based on who they are, and not their race.”

  2. tara says:

    Does your neighbor check the Law & Order scripts for legal accuracy? Because that sounds like an awesome job. (I’m a 3rd year law student). In fact, I want that job. Seriously.

  3. Jim says:

    I have always thought that after years of showing blacks on TV in negative roles that it might be a good idea to turn it around and show blacks in almost all positive roles. I believe that many people including myself who grew up around almost all white people learned some stereotypes from television. I think blacks have a real gripe when it comes to how television portrayed them for years.

  4. Pooh says:

    Though in real life no criminal case is resolved in one hour, Law & Order is pretty good on the substance of the law. The precedents mentioned are typically real cases. The rulings by the judges (at lightening speed) are often correct. I tell my students they can learn a lot by watching.

    In my 1L year, I studied for my Crim Law final mostly by watching L&O marathons. I’m only partly kidding. It was my highest grade of the year…

  5. Christopher Adcock says:

    The comment that no criminal case is solved in one hour is one I hear from TV critics (who should know better) and lawyers (who should also know better). Time on a television show is not real time. No case on this show is solved in an hour. Ever. Weeks and months are covered. If you watch a documentary on Court TV about a real-life case, and it takes half an hour, would you say no case is solved in half an hour? That would be slly. You know very well time is compressed in a documentary, but people act like television time is real time, and it is not. It has become an absurd criticism of TV shows that they make solving crimes seem too easy. The viewer knows the time covered is a lot more than an hour, as for “Law & Order,” they even use a day and time for their transitions to prove it.

  6. Micker says:

    What’s going on?

    Why so much Van Buren?

    Is it because of the Lackawanna Blues role?

    This season she went has gone from 5 minutes an episode to the lead charactor!!

    Let’s face it, Merkersen is a marginal actress at best.

    Her character is boring.

    If Dick Wolf is trying to make yet another statement about black women in power, tell him to give her a show of her own. (it won’t last 6 weeks).

    Don’t ruin a TV institution!!

    Everybody I talk to agrees with me.

    Put out a poll, you will see I’m right.

    They are losing me and many other viewers.

  7. CAR says:

    That woman can act, Chris Adhock!!! If you saw her in Lackawanna, you’d know that Awards won were very deserved, and how deep her acting goes. Very limited on L&O

    Who bugs me is Fontana – I’ve enjoyed him in previous works, but not after my Lenny. Lenny’s humor (Jerry”s really) is gone, and somebody need to try and bring some of it back