Judge active in 'People's Court'

People call her Judge Judy, but Mary Lynne James' courtroom is anything but a made-for-TV drama.

What happens in her version of "People's Court" is a professional, efficient meeting out of the law -- James makes sure of it.

"This really is people's court because most of the defendants have no attorneys," James said. "In small claims court, the judge is actively involved and helps clients present their case, and that isn't the case in any other legal situation."

Small claims cases are scheduled for 1 p.m. every Wednesday so that they can be scheduled quickly and -- hopefully -- dealt with quickly.

Cases that involve $15,000 or less are eligible.

"People look at what the maximum amount is on a small claims case and throw in the kitchen sink," James said. "People can get pretty creative with their damages."

In a small claims case, no one is awarded money for their travel or lost time from work.

And pain and suffering has never been worth $15,000, James said.

The judge makes the final decision -- she awards a monetary judgment -- and it's often less than one side wanted and more than the other planned to give.

"Usually, the result I give sends both people away unhappy," James said. "There's being right and there's being correct under the law, and those are two different things."

James has her own rules for how the court runs. She's quick to put a stop to bickering and pettiness. She often reminds those involved to talk to her and each other.

"It stays civil," she said. "Just being in the presence of someone in a black robe helps."

James also acts as a professional mediator. It's different than ruling in small claims in that as a judge, she has to rule based on the evidence and the law, as a mediator there's flexibility for emotions.

Bigger courts require that small claims participants see a mediator before going to court, but Moffat County doesn't have those resources, James said.

James said the cases she sees are pretty commonplace -- a painting that wasn't finished, a tractor that didn't meet the buyer's expectation, damage from renters.

"Anything where people disagree over money," she said. "The case has to be something that can be solved by an award of damages."

James has presided over small claims court for more than 20 years. She said the cases all sort of run together.

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