“Hot Bench” Judge Tanya Acker Lays Down the Law & Shares Valuable Advice for Succeeding in Life

The lawyer and TV star talks about small claims court, big picture stuff and the “phenomenal advice” she gives to young people today.

Tanya Acker isn't afraid to lay down the law
Tanya Acker isn't afraid to lay down the law

People love a good courtroom drama and if you’re among the millions of viewers who tune in every week to watch “Hot Bench,” there’s no doubt that Tanya Acker is a familiar face. That’s because Tanya has been part of the CBS court show since it premiered in 2014.

Created by Judge Judy herself, “Hot Bench” is not only the first show to feature a three-judge panel in a courtroom, but it’s also the only one that takes viewers into the judges’ chambers as they deliberate each case.

Along with judicial cohorts and co-stars Patricia DiMango and Michael Corriero, Tanya keeps the litigants (and audience) on their toes with her astute observations, confident tone and intellectual perspective.

While we know that Tanya isn’t afraid to lay down the law when court is in session, we wanted to know more about — and learn from — this successful woman when the cameras are off.

Homegirl Talk caught up with the Los Angeles native to discuss matters of the law, the importance of adding value to the world and never letting others throw you off your game.

Judge Judy and her courtly cast of characters
Judge Judy and her courtly cast of characters

Hi Tanya! Thanks so much for talking with me for Homegirl Talk. Tell me about “Hot Bench” and how the show came about.

Well, Judy was in Ireland and she saw a three-judge panel in action and decided that it would be a great TV show idea. It’s much more common in Europe than it is here in the United States to have three judges try a case in the court system.

What we do is really the same thing Judy does except there are three us. Viewers get a chance to see us go back into chambers and discuss the case, which is what really makes ‘Hot Bench’ different from other shows because you don’t get to see legal decision makers arrive at their decisions. You don’t usually get to see that even when you’re working in the process.

My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to a federal appellate court judge here [in Los Angeles] in the Ninth Circuit. We would advise her, we went to court hearings with her, but then there was always the moment when she went back into conference with the other judges and we weren’t invited to that. So we’re providing viewers with some insight that is pretty unusual.

It’s the inner sanctum. It’s truly behind the scenes.

Exactly, except we’ve brought everybody behind the scenes with us!

Do you know what the cases are going to be ahead of time? Is there a script?

No, there’s no script. All the litigants on our show are actual litigants in small claims cases. They filed their cases in a small claims court somewhere in the United States. And when they agree to come on our show, they agree to binding arbitration, so our decisions are real, they are binding and it is not scripted. We get a complaint and an answer in advance, but we don’t meet or interact with the litigants whatsoever until they come and do the case. It’s all very real.

Are you a lawyer and a judge? Do you have to be one to be the other? 

I’m a lawyer. I’m not a judge outside of the show. I’ve worked as judge pro-tem but that’s something that lawyers can do on a volunteer basis. Lawyers, whether they’re on TV or not, can be arbitrators. They can arbitrate cases and resolve disputes.

Tanya Acker - Photo by Annie Shak
The verdict is in: Tanya Acker is fierce! Photo by Annie Shak

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer? Do you come from a family of lawyers and judges? 

No, I don’t come from a family of lawyers. When I was a kid, my parents worked at the post office. My dad was a mailman and my mom worked nights so she could pick me up from school. Which meant that my dad was responsible for putting me to bed, which meant that I went to bed watching Jerry Dunphy on Eyewitness News and Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. They are the ones who put me to bed, so I’ve always liked TV.

Law school happened because I like to read, I like to write and let’s be real honest, I needed to be able to support myself.

When I was in college, I toyed around with the idea of majoring in art history because I really enjoy art and find it relaxing and inspiring. My parents’ reaction was something along the lines of, ‘We lost the trust fund that you never had, so you need to think about how you’re going to go make a living.’ And frankly, it’s phenomenal advice. It’s advice that I give to young people.

I think it’s great to change the world and there are a lot of things that need changing, but we need to make sure we’re situating ourselves to take care of ourselves first. Because if you’re not able to manage your own situation, you’re not going to be able to change or fix anything else.

So I chose law because I wanted a degree that was going to be flexible — you can do a lot of things with a law degree. I like that I can use it to be a part of changing things. The law helps you understand situations that are troubling and it enables you to come up with solutions.

And then in a really practical sense, if everything fell apart — and I don’t expect it to — but if it did, I can plop down and go get myself a job.

I think more young people need to know that the world can’t be fixed if they can’t save themselves first.

Don't get it twisted!
Don’t get it twisted!

I think that’s great advice and it provides an interesting balance. Because you always want to have a dream and encourage others to do the same, but you also have to anchor those aspirations with reality. Which is that you better make sure you can hold your own and take care of yourself. 

We’re at a point where we’re seeing lots of young people — and by young, I mean older teenagers and 20-somethings — who sometimes seem really despairing of their prospects and it’s not without good reason. Our economy has changed, the value that they get for their educational dollars has changed and we’re really at a place where we need to do a whole lot of rethinking.

Everybody is not going to go to law school. Law school is not for everybody. But part of whatever dream you have must start with solid footing. There’s a whole generation of people growing up who are feeling like they don’t have prospects, they don’t have opportunity, there’s not a lot of hope. And what can they change? What can they fix?

I think that people who are a little bit older, like me, really have a responsibility to say, now it’s your turn to disrupt the world and figure where you want to take it. But it starts with where you’re taking yourself first.

Learning — really learning things, facts, reading —  all of that seems to be almost passe now.

Hot Bench takes viewers behind closed doors

Well, the reality is that not everybody is going to grow up to be a famous NBA star or musician, so you better learn something. 

That’s right. You know what we really need? Great electricians. Skilled plumbers. There are opportunities, but for some reason we are not valuing them or valuing the people who do these jobs. We’re not treating it like it’s important work.

I don’t know how we got off onto this conversation! But why did I want to become a lawyer? I became a lawyer because I wanted to make an impact and do something that I enjoy.

As you can tell, I like talking, I like writing, I like figuring stuff out. We need to make room and provide more opportunity for other people to do their thing because it adds value to the whole. If you look at the kind of work that some of these kids are doing with their hands, they’re really adding value, but we’re just not giving them the opportunity to do it. We’re making it harder instead of easier.

You received your B.A. at Howard University in Washington, D.C. How important was it for you to attend an historically black university? 

I grew up in a working-class environment and my neighborhood was very integrated, which I feel very lucky about. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Lake View Terrace and I remember my parents’ best friends were an interracial couple, my best friend was a girl from Guyana and it really was a mix of people.

So for college, I really wanted a deeper exploration of my own African American history and the culture that I come from that has contributed so much to this country. Howard has its own very special history. I was interested in communications and I ended up majoring in English. But I also wanted to go to D.C., so it appealed to me for a lot of reasons and I’m really happy that I went there.

You then graduated from Yale Law School. What was that experience like?

I loved it. I have to say I had a really good time in law school. I loved the way they approach the study of law. It’s an approach that suggests if something is wrong, you can fix it. The great thing about our rule of law and our judiciary system is that it provides the means to correct its own mistakes.

When I was in college, I won a scholarship to study at Oxford for a year, so I have quite a travel bug. I’ve always enjoyed school. I think it’s lucky that I enjoyed it as much as I did because when you really like something it’s easier to do well at it.

Do you feel like you had to work even harder because you are a woman, and not only a woman, but a woman of color? What’s your advice to others who might experience discrimination? 

I mean, um … yeah! [Laughs] I kind of don’t know how to answer that question. There are times when it’s been made quite obvious that people were not going to give me the same respect that some men or some white colleagues were given. I think that happens to a lot of people.

The question is: Are you going to let it define you? Are you going to let it throw you off your game? Are you going to let somebody else’s issue — whether or not it springs from some backward ideas they have about race or gender — throw you off? Is that going to be the thing that controls the day?

No. The answer is no. But yeah, that stuff happens. And when it happens it can be really disconcerting. It’s like, ‘really?’ Most of my life is not like that. My life is multiracial. The people in my life are multiracial. The people I love are multiracial. I’m an African American woman with a multiracial life.

That said, when somebody or some situation arises that tries to ‘put me in my place’ whatever that place is, then it’s my decision. I’ve decided what my place is. What other folks may have in their heads, that’s on them.

For all of us who are trying to navigate these issues, sometimes it’s easier said than done. Because when that person or that situation has real power and control and authority, it can be much harder. It’s a continuing process, but I will say, even though it might not be a popular thing to say, is that things are better than they used to be.

From humble beginnings to the hot bench
From humble beginnings to the hot bench

I’m a third-generation Mexican American woman from a working-class family, so I relate to a lot of what you’re saying. I wonder how you were able to break through your socioeconomic environment without any special connection or privilege?

I don’t know what the magic sauce is that our parents had, but my father wasn’t leaving his law office and then setting me up with his golf buddies for an internship. And if your background is anything like mine, your path to journalism was probably very different than if you had been someone born into a family with connections. People like us, we find our way.

My mom grew up on a farm in Mississippi in the Jim Crow south, but it was a farm that her grandfather owned. So there were certain things that she learned that were really important. For example, when plantation owners shut down the school so the black kids could go pick cotton, her grandfather got her and her cousins to a place where the schools were open and he made sure that she finished high school.

So part of the sauce that my family was able to impart to me, notwithstanding the fact that we didn’t grow up wealthy, was that you just gotta learn. The only thing that can get you from point A to point B or point Z is being educated and to really dig in and add value to the world.

You really emphasize the importance of learning and adding value. 

The best thing I can say is you have to learn something and learn how to create some value. Then you’ll get some value back.

Tell me about the work you’ve done with the Supreme Court and the office of former president Bill Clinton.

After my clerkship, I worked in the office of the solicitor general, which is part of the justice department. He’s the DOJ [Department of Justice] official who represents the United States before the Supreme Court. So whenever you see these Supreme Court cases that are ‘U.S. vs. so and so’ it’s either the solicitor general or one of his deputies who will argue that case. I worked in that office as one of their fellows, so that meant I worked with the SG on Supreme Court cases and I helped him prepare for arguments.

The case to which you are referring was the Clinton v. Jones case where we were representing Bill Clinton not personally, but we were representing the Office of the President for the proposition that you can’t sue a president for an alleged civil liability when he’s a sitting president. And we lost that because the Supreme Court says, ‘Oh yes, you can.’ It was a really rarefied experience that could not be more different from what I’m doing now.

No matter how heated things get, the judges always maintain order in the court

From the Supreme Court to the Hot Bench! Some might say that the work you do now is so much lighter.

Well, what I’m doing now is so immediate. I think people look at these cases sometimes and think that because it’s a small claims case it’s not a big deal. But for a lot of these litigants, this is their life. These cases have dominated their lives and they feel like the world will end unless it goes their way. It’s a different set of issues for each case, but underneath it all it’s about the same insistence of feeling right.

Do you have your own private practice in addition to doing the show?

No. I do some pro bono work but I can’t maintain a practice. I’m writing a book along with some other stuff, so I lawyer in my free time!

You received the ACLU’s First Amendment Award for successfully representing the homeless in a case against the City of Santa Barbara. Tell me about that.

I did! The case was for a group of homeless people who were arrested for vagrancy — sleeping on the streets and not in their trailers. Under the law there’s a ‘defense of necessity,’ which means you had to do it.

Now, the necessity defense doesn’t work by saying, ‘I stole this loaf of bread because I needed it.’ The necessity defense requires that you prove there was literally nothing else for you to do.

In this case, our clients said that while they were being charged with vagrancy, they had no other options because they were homeless. The city countered by saying these people could have gone to shelters. The problem was, and the reason the ACLU got involved, was that in order to sleep at these particular shelters, the participants had to recite certain prayers and affirm a belief in Jesus. That’s fine if you have that same faith practice, but some of them didn’t want to be forced to say a prayer that they didn’t believe in.

I was raised a Christian and I identify as such, but there is something entirely inappropriate about the government telling you that you must pray or go to jail. We went to California Court of Appeal where I argued the case and the court sided with us. It’s a case that I’m very proud of.

Tanya Acker is one lawyer who tells it like it is
Tanya Acker is one lawyer who tells it like it is – Photo by Annie Shak

Is it possible to extricate your own personal beliefs and values when dealing with the law?

One of the great things about legal training is that it gives you the discipline to do precisely that. I can think of any number of situations — whether it’s been a case in our small claims forum or some bigger picture issue — where I’d like to see a different result but it’s not the law.

I might think someone did something shady or nasty or ill-mannered or just plain bad, but that shady behavior may not rise to whatever the legal standard requires in order to impose the penalty. So the law is an entirely different animal. The law has a different set of rules than do people with good manners.

It seems the courtroom can be a microcosm of our world that reflects the struggles of our daily lives. 

Some of the things people want remedies for are not going to come in the courtroom. Sometimes I wish it would and that you could simply order a personality transplant for someone, but you can’t. And I think we’d all do well to remember that. The law can’t fix everything, but you can do your part in life to make things better.

Get social: Follow Tanya Acker on her Instagram page for behind-the-scenes fun and more.

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.