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Joseph Wapner, the retired Los Angeles judge who presided over "The People's Court" with steady force during the heyday of the reality courtroom show, died Sunday at age 97.

Son David Wapner told The Associated Press that his father died at home in his sleep. Joseph Wapner was hospitalized a week ago with breathing problems and had been under home hospice care.

"The People's Court," on which Wapner decided real small-claims from 1981 to 1993, was one of the granddaddies of the syndicated reality shows of today. His affable, no-nonsense approach attracted many fans, putting "The People's Court" in the top five in syndication at its peak.

Before auditioning for the show, Wapner had spent more than 20 years on the bench in Los Angeles, first in Municipal Court and then in Superior Court. At one time he was presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest court in the United States. He retired as judge in November 1979, the day after his 60th birthday.

"Everything on the show is real," Wapner told the AP in a 1986 interview. "There's no script, no rehearsal, no retakes. Everything from beginning to end is like a real courtroom, and I personally consider each case as a trial."

"Sometimes I don't even deliberate," he added. "I just decide from the bench, it's so obvious. The beautiful part is that I have carte blanche."

"The People's Court" cases were tried without lawyers by the rules of Small Claims Court, which has a damage limit of $1,500. Researchers for the producer, Ralph Edwards Productions, checked claims filed in Southern California for interesting cases.

The plaintiff and defendant had to agree to have the case settled on the show and sign a binding arbitration agreement; the show paid for the settlements.

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