ATLANTA — As a girl, Penny Brown Reynolds had two role models: her mother and Perry Mason.
Growing up fatherless in the small-town South, she watched the tough attorney on television from her living room couch, which was also her bed.
She figured that becoming a lawyer, and eventually a judge, would help her and her single mother overcome the stigma of being poor.
“I saw being a judge as a career where no one could question my integrity,” Reynolds said. “Everything I did was to right all the wrongs in her life.”
Reynolds, now a judge in Fulton County State Court, will soon star in “Family Court With Judge Penny,” drawing on her legal and personal background to address fighting couples, reckless parents and child custody issues.
“Family issues touch everyone in America,” she said. “These are going to be the cases that matter.”
Reynolds is the third woman from the Atlanta legal community to make the jump into reality courtroom television, following in the footsteps of Glenda Hatchett, who formerly presided over Fulton County’s juvenile court, of “Judge Hatchett” and former Fulton County prosecutor Nancy Grace, who stars in a justice-themed debate show bearing her name on CNN.
The half-hour “Family Court” has been syndicated in nearly 30 markets across the country, including stations from Fox Television, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Hearst-Argyle Television, CBS Television, Tribune Broadcasting and the CW Plus Groups.
The show, co-produced by Program Partners and 44 Blue Productions, is being filmed in Los Angeles and is scheduled for a fall launch.
Reynolds’ Perry Mason fantasy didn’t include having her own show, but her appearance on “The Dr. Phil Show” in February 2007 set her on the path to Hollywood. The judge was invited on the show as an expert on postnuptial agreements, and was such a hit that Dr. Phil offered Reynolds her chance at fame with her own show.
Other offers also poured in, but at the time, Reynolds said she was reluctant to pursue television.
“All I wanted to be was a judge,” Reynolds said. “I didn’t want to do anything that would appear demeaning to the legacy I was trying to create for myself, my mother and my grandchildren. It was not something I pursued because I wanted to maintain the integrity of wearing that robe.”
Reynolds said she thinks she can do that with “Family Court,” based on the nature of the cases.
Like the lawyers before her who went on to TV prominence, Reynolds brings an approach that blends straight talk and creative sentencing. She said her show will also be a balance of entertainment and empathy.
“You need somebody to be straight, but not humiliate or degrade,” she said. “There’s a back story to every situation. I’m the person who wants to hear that story.”
In her eight years on the bench, the lessons Reynolds learned from her mother, Deforest Marie Brown, have shaped her advice to the people who pass through her courtroom. Reynolds has used tough love and creative sentencing to resolve her cases.
“When you’re dealing with family issues, it’s about more than just the issue or the person that’s before you,” Reynolds said.
Besides doling out punishment, Reynolds may put people into counseling, put troubled teens into a wilderness program or boot camp, or require someone to get his or her GED.
“What it says to the person is that somebody believes in you,” she said, adding that some people have returned to show her their test scores. “Sometimes, punishment can involve doing something that helps you, so that you can be a vital and contributing member of society.”
When she refers to her own experiences as one of four girls raised by a struggling single mother, Reynolds said it makes it easier for people to relate and harder for them to make excuses.
“One who struggles understands adversity,” she said. “I can be tough, yet merciful.”