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It’s fitting that “Judge Mathis” star Greg Mathis will be getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 4 because his life reads like a Hollywood story.

Born in Detroit and raised by a single mother in a housing project and in other areas, Mathis’ young adult life included time with the Errol Flynn’s street gang and incarceration in the Wayne County Jail as a juvenile.

He credits a cousin for turning his life around by helping him get into college. He eventually got a law degree, became a district court judge and active in politics, even serving as the Michigan head of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 U.S. presidential campaign.

But since 1999, he’s presided over a different kind of courtroom: the one for his eponymous syndicated, Daytime Emmy-winning program.

Mathis explains that he took the TV job on the condition that he could tell his story at the top of each episode.

And his judging style, which is peppered with dad jokes as much as it is catchphrases (“Start with you!;” “You’re talking contemptuous!”), is opinionated with no patience for nonsense. Still, he gets the job done.

“I can identify better than most judges with the plight of the litigants because I’ve lived the life of almost every litigant that comes before me,” Mathis says. “My sole objective in life is to be able to inspire the people I left behind to overcome their obstacles.”

He is very much involved in Michigan activism and outreach, be it donating to help the Flint water crisis or building a community center.

He says his decision to do the show in the first place was because he “felt on a national level, if street youth and single mothers would see me every day [I could try to] empower them and inspire them. I felt I could affect more people around the country than I could a local city.”

In Detroit, he presided over everything from murders to evictions and he notes, “you really had to be prepared and abreast of modern law.”

“Judge Mathis” primarily deals with small claims matters including paternity suits and renters’ rights. He says he doesn’t know the cases ahead of time and that most of his preparation is done in the “one minute and 30 seconds” it takes him to walk to the bench.

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“Mathis Family Matters” premieres on E! on Juneteenth. Jesse Grant/E! Entertainment

Mathis has only had one court case that made him cry on screen; that of an orphaned young man who went to live with his aunt and strict uncle. When the judge told the uncle that he should be helping the nephew and he had a chance to be “a great example of a Black man that could give him tips on being a productive member of society,” the man responded, “He’s nothing to me.”

The case is also one of only three times in which Mathis asked a litigant to come to his chambers after taping (the others involved a mother whose sons were addicted to heroin and a woman who was a domestic violence victim).

In this instance, Mathis told the young man he’d help him with housing and schooling. A few years later, he came to visit the judge and tell him he’d earned his associate’s degree and was also a youth minister at his church.
Mathis, who has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1985, is a father of four and grandfather of two. He says he’s “keenly aware” of when there’s an opportunity to “defeat” social stereotypes, such as showcasing “Black men who take care of their children.”

Himself a Seventh-day Adventist, Mathis also prayed on screen with litigants in a paternity case.
Mathis says it’s “very clear that television is entertainment first,” but that “part of the perception that people have of me is that I’m very socially conscious and fair toward every community.”

This is especially true when it comes to marginalized groups including racial minorities, women, members of the queer community and the working class.

He’s a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and has spoken out on social media and talk shows about the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner.

Dressed in his judge’s robe and sitting from behind his show’s bench, he’s filmed politically messaged Facebook videos, including one about the investigation into the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.
Just like the court cases his show covers, Mathis’ remarks are real and come from the heart.
In fact, one of the few fakeries about “Judge Mathis” is its bailiff: Doyle Devereux, who has held the title since 2003 is not a real court custodian; he just plays one on TV.

He and Mathis have developed a friendship and rapport on and off screen over the years, be it taking their wives on double dates for steaks in Palm Springs, Calif., or the judge threatening the actor with jail time because his jokes were so bad.

“He has such a handle on human nature and I really admire that,” says Devereux, who himself applied to law school once upon a time. “He has this legal background and he’s so smart, it’s tough keeping up. He makes magic out of the kind of seemingly mundane.”

It can be hard for shows like this — or daytime TV in general — to earn some respect, but “Judge Mathis” executive producer Gretchen Kurtz says there’s power in what they’re doing. This is one of the reasons why she’s stayed with the program since she came on as an associate producer in 2001.

“We’re helping people, not only with lawsuits, but with DNA and trying to figure out who their father is,” Kurtz says. “We’re helping people with drug addictions. These are real Americans coming to us with real everyday problems. A lot of these reality shows show the upper echelon of America; our show shows real America.”

But will there always be a “Judge Mathis” show? There has been talk of him leaving the program before and he credits his own attention deficit disorder, with which he was diagnosed in college, for his ability to take on myriad other projects.

He has a memoir and co-wrote a novel. And he was about to take a one-man biographical show on tour before COVID-19 hit. He had a short-lived show on BET called “The Mathis Project” in which he attempted to help solve cold cases from crime-ridden neighborhoods and is an executive producer of the BET series “American Gangster: Trap Queens.” Now in its third season, it explores the lives of notorious female criminals. He describes it as “a cautionary tale with an inspiration ending for each young lady.” He also made regular appearances on the recently canceled syndicated daytime talk show, “The Real.”

On Juneteenth, E! will premiere “Mathis Family Matters,” which will feature the extended Mathis family and what the judge describes as the USA Network series “Chrisley Knows Best” but “with a little more social relevance.”

“My objective in entertainment is to provide programming that will be inspirational to the community or the constituents I seek,” Mathis says. “And that is folks who live in the reality of drugs and crime-infested communities where the education system has failed them and all the other pathologies that we know that leads to a lifestyle of drugs crime and so I like to show that.”