Real-life Judge Frederica and Prime-time Judge Amy preside in Juvenile Court

Amy Brenneman, who plays a juvenile court judge in the TV drama Judging Amy, was seated in the courtroom, cameras rolling, when she realized her real-life parents Frederica ’53 and Russell Brenneman ’53 were watching.

The sight of her mother, the trailblazing Connecticut judge who inspired the show, and whose job she was about to portray, disconcerted the experienced actor. “My parents were in California for Thanksgiving and had visited the set a few times. The scenes of the family at home went fine. That day, though, I had a summation speech. There I was with my robe on, and suddenly it all became too Freudian. I thought, I’m playacting, pretending to be my mother! I couldn’t remember my lines. I got the sweats.”

That was during the early weeks of Judging Amy, which first aired on CBS in September 1999 and became a surprise hit, earning the highest ratings of any new drama. Today Amy Brenneman is very comfortable wearing her judge’s robe in the role of Amy Gray, who leaves her high-powered but unsatisfying corporate law practice in New York City and, with her daughter, returns to her native Hartford, Conn., to take a seat on the juvenile court bench. Amy, who is newly separated, moves in with her mother, Maxine, a veteran social worker played by Emmy award-winning actor Tyne Daly. Like Amy Brenneman, the TV Amy has two brothers, Vincent and Peter, who with Maxine, Amy’s daughter, Lauren, and sister-in-law, Gillian, are the focus of the show’s home-front scenes.

While Judge Amy presides in family court and is an HLS grad, just like Judge Frederica, the prime-time judge and real-life judge are very different. “I play my mother’s job,” explained Amy Brenneman, “not my mother.” Actually, it is outspoken, straight-shooter Maxine Gray, with her deep knowledge of the child welfare system, who more closely resembles Judge Frederica Brenneman.

A Radcliffe graduate, Frederica Brenneman was a member of the first HLS class to admit women. (She met her husband at the School; today Russell Brenneman is semi-retired from private practice in environmental law.) In 1967 Frederica Brenneman was working as a law clerk to the Connecticut legislature’s judiciary committee when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles were entitled to constitutional due process. In the wake of In Re Gault, the state’s juvenile court doubled in size and Brenneman was appointed, the second woman on the bench in Connecticut history. (She became judge in Superior Court when the state trial courts merged in 1978.) In her long career Brenneman has specialized in abuse and neglect cases, pushed for stronger legal protections for children, shaped clear statewide protocols and case law, trained innumerable judges, and educated caseworkers, attorneys, parents, and the public on court procedures. But for all her outreach efforts, she noted, “It’s Amy’s show that really gets the issues out there,” while entertaining an audience of millions.

Now semi-retired, Judge Brenneman serves on an on-call basis. She prefers to sit exclusively in juvenile court, traveling to six or seven locations around Connecticut. Her peripatetic schedule lets her spread her expertise about the state. “Like Johnny Appleseed, I show up and say, ‘This is how we solved this problem in Hartford – why don’t you try it?'”

Brenneman also shares her courtroom knowledge as a consultant to Judging Amy. Nicknamed “Judge Freddy” by the show’s staff, she has introduced the writers to some of her Connecticut colleagues, including a juvenile prosecutor, a female judge, and social workers. “The good writers call them for advice,” she noted dryly.

The genesis of Judging Amy dates back a few years, when Amy Brenneman shot a video at the Hartford courthouse in honor of her mother’s 70th birthday. She interviewed many of the probation officers, social workers, lawyers, and police and court officers who frequent Judge Brenneman’s courtroom. She found her mother’s colleagues “damn funny, with a wonderful gallows humor. They’ve been doing [this work] forever.”

The actor had been away from TV while working on feature films, including Heat and Our Friends and Neighbors. But Amy Brenneman knew the medium well: her first high-profile role was Officer Janice Licalsi during the first season of the acclaimed TV series NYPD Blue. Working on that show, she observed the tight collaboration between writer David Milch and Bill Clark, a New York City detective. “Bill Clark was a wonderful source of stories for Milch,” she said. “Unlike movies or plays, you need an inexhaustible source for TV. One story ain’t gonna do it.” It struck her that her mother’s life as a judge was full of “amazing people and stories”- rich raw material for a TV series.

Friends in the business warned Brenneman the concept was too depressing. Incest, addiction, domestic violence, and other harsh realities that come out in juvenile court “are part of it,” the actor said. “But it’s the style of the people who do this work, the tough moral choices made one step at a time, and the wins along the way” that she knew would make “a good soup.”

Her mother thought the same. Around the time of the video, Frederica Brenneman had come up with her own TV series concept she called “SCJM” – Supreme Court Juvenile Matters. Her idea was to focus each episode on one of the venues where neglect cases originate, be it a school reporting a beating of a child at home, or cops intervening in a domestic violence case. The child protective services team would then enter the story, which would conclude before a judge, whom Brenneman imagined as “an aging, foul-mouthed lady judge of about 70.” She mailed her treatment to her daughter. “Months later I said to Ame, ‘So what did you think of my idea?’ She said, ‘Oh, I lost it. Could you send it to me again?’ But by then her program was already in gestation. She told me about it and said, ‘Mom, the judge isn’t going to be a 70-year-old foul-mouthed woman. She will be 35 years old, like me.'”

CBS approved the Judging Amy pilot, ordered the initial 13 episodes, and Amy Brenneman became both star and executive producer of the new show. The early scenes of Amy Gray starting her new job echo Frederica Brenneman’s own bewildering first days amid the commotion and disconcerting informality of the juvenile courtroom.

Amy was three years old when her mother was sworn in, in August 1967. Frederica Brenneman came to court with no appellate or trial experience or knowledge of juvenile law. “I had become known, and appointments were based more on who you knew back then,” she said. “My HLS degree and Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe counted heavily in my favor.” She suddenly went from “mother of three children ages 3, 6, and 7, and baker of brownies” to courtroom boss. She proved adept at orchestrating the hectic juvenile justice process in which many parties weigh in, and at formulating decisions quickly, for the sake of the children involved. Case by case, “I learned evidence from my side of the bench and discovered I was good at it.”

When Brenneman started out, juvenile judges didn’t wear robes, in order to convey a friendly, informal image. Brenneman didn’t bother with one either – at first. “But when I was judge for close to a year, I found a kid delinquent and sent him to a state training school. His mother said to me, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Brenneman.’ And I said, ‘Hey, wait, lady. Who do you think just sent your son out of town for two years?’ That’s when I realized I needed the robe to project a certain authority. Nowadays, judges all wear robes,” and juvenile justice overall has become “so severe. We’ve gone back about 100 years, to treating kids like short adults. I think that’s terrible, the wrong approach. This is a drum I beat – and I’m glad to see Amy Gray beats it too.”

With her husband, Russell, and her children by her side, Frederica Brenneman speaks to the governor after she is sworn in as a Connecticut juvenile court judge in 1967.
Credit: Smith/Middletown Press/Courtesy of the Brenneman Family With her husband, Russell, and her children by her side, Frederica Brenneman speaks to the governor after she is sworn in as a Connecticut juvenile court judge in 1967.

As a child, Amy Brenneman rarely saw her mother in action because juvenile court sessions are closed. “I would see her finishing up something and observe how full of dignity, grace, and humor she was. Then she’d take off her robe and talk about what to make for dinner.” In the evenings at home, “Mom would be reading a case while I was watching TV, and she’d ask me, ‘What would you do?'” For instance, her mother would say, “What if you have this kid and he’s got some bruises on his backside but he is very bonded to his parents. The court could take him [and put him in foster care]. Amy, what would you do?” The judge’s daughter learned that “it’s easy to say, remove the child from the abusive parents. But is the abuse absolutely detrimental, given the choice of breaking those ties and given what that would do to the child?”

Even though she was proud of her mother’s “cool” job, Amy says she was often “bummed” because, unlike her friends’ mothers, the judge was never available during the day. Although Judge Brenneman couldn’t make it to her daughter’s after-school track meets, she did attend Amy’s evening drama performances. From age 11 to 18, Amy belonged to a theater group for kids, Creative Experiences, in her hometown of Glastonbury. She also performed in school productions.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, where she majored in comparative religion, Amy Brenneman cofounded the Cornerstone Theatre Company, which she traveled with after graduation. The company received grants to teach in schools and to bring drama programs to isolated places – such as an Indian reservation in Nevada and a small town in Mississippi – where the members would live for months at a time, adapting plays to the interest of each community and performing along with local actors. After four or five years with the company, Brenneman began to branch into television and film. Today she chairs the board of Cornerstone, now based in Los Angeles.

On their most recent visit to the Judging Amy set, Frederica and Russell Brenneman observed their daughter in her role of executive producer, participating in every decision from casting to rewrites. Judge Brenneman noted that Amy “has a wonderful managerial style,” reflecting her ensemble experiences. The judge talked to “Sally the script-keeper,” who has worked on countless productions. “She told me theirs is a very happy set. Amy’s a big force in that.”

Amy Brenneman stars in an episode of Judging Amy, with Tyne Daly playing her mother and Karle Warren portraying her daughter.
Credit: Michael Yarish/CBS Amy Brenneman stars in an episode of Judging Amy, with Tyne Daly playing her mother and Karle Warren portraying her daughter.

Despite her parents’ occasional hints, the judge’s daughter never had any interest in studying law. Now her long exposure to juvenile justice enriches her portrayal of Judge Amy Gray. “It’s pleasurable to use things I’ve seen since I was young,” she said, as the line between the two Amys blurs: “My ease on the bench – that’s in the skin. I get from Mom a real need to get to the bottom line. You’re dealing with kids and they’re on a different time clock. Studies show, when a three-year-old is away from mom for six months, damage is done. So you get impatient [in court]: ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!'”

She said Judge Brenneman thinks Judge Gray’s style is a bit harsh: “‘You’re too tough,’ she tells me.” But the actor noted that while Amy Gray is “very confident in her robe, her work, she’s much less so in her personal life.” Out of her robe, in the family scenes, she sometimes turns into sharp-tongued daughter, overwhelmed single mom, or bratty sister.

As legal consultant, Judge Brenneman reads every Judging Amy script and e-mails her comments. Amy Brenneman said her mother wants “case law, case law, and more case law” in the show. “She and I both get the first draft, the ‘writer’s draft,’ which is an unfinished initial attempt, often not that great, and she goes nuts, saying this is awful, that is awful. And I explain to her that it’s a creative process. Even so, there are times when she’ll be upset at our use of dramatic license.”

“Sometimes I lose battles for no reason I can understand!” her mother complained. In a recent script an 11-year-old boy’s probation officer follows him to a railroad station and sees the boy prostituting himself. What bothered Judge Brenneman was that “when Amy Gray asks [in court], ‘Did you let D.C.F. [Department of Children and Families] know?’ the P.O. answers, ‘I filed a petition, but they wouldn’t pursue it.'” Judge Brenneman asked the writers to change the word petition to referral because in real life “the P.O. would have made a referral to the administering agency, not a petition to open the case.” The writers refused. “Now, I realize 999 people out of 1,000 would not notice this inaccuracy, but I want it to be correct for Connecticut law.”

Nonetheless, she said, “It’s all great fun. And it is rewarding when my suggestions get in.” In fact, when the pilot was being shot, Amy’s sidekick in the courtroom was going to be a sheriff until Judge Brenneman intervened. “I said, ‘That’s ridiculous! The sheriffs are nice guys, but they’re not professionals'” in juvenile justice. And so Bruce Van Exel, clearly the judge’s favorite character after Amy Gray, got a new job: court services officer.

A recent Judging Amy plotline came from Brenneman’s own caseload, with alterations to protect identities. In the TV version, a Croatian father had signed away his family’s possessions in order to get back his daughter, who had been abducted by Serbs. But it was her body that was returned, after she had been raped and murdered. After fleeing to America, the family becomes homeless and the remaining child is taken into state custody.

When the case comes before Judge Gray, she orders the D.C.F. workers to find the family an apartment by 5:00 p.m. that afternoon. The agency workers argue that the family will only wind up homeless again. Judge Gray is unrelenting, however, and housing is found. In the real-life case, Judge Brenneman likewise concluded that “homelessness is not a reason to separate kids from parents.” The message for Judge Brenneman in her case was that “sitting between his two parents on a park bench in Bridgeport” represented home to the child.

When Brenneman graduated from HLS in the 1950s, “family law was deemed a lower class of study,” and juvenile law is still “the stepchild of the judicial process.” For that reason, one episode particularly resonated for her. In it, Judge Gray is offered a chance to transfer to the criminal branch. She pays a visit to criminal court, noting the fancier setting, the big jury box, the well-dressed attorneys, the aura of importance. “At the end of the hour,” Judge Brenneman recounted, “Judge Amy says to the hiring judge, ‘Thanks but no thanks. When you hear a criminal trial, you make a big difference in the life of one person. In family court, I can have an impact on six people at once.’ That was such a hurray for us family court judges!”

As Judging Amy matures, she hopes it will address same-gender marriages and custody issues that arise for gay couples after a divorce. She would also like more on sexual abuse, “especially the difficulty of determining if alle-gations are true or not, and the dilemma of deciding whether a seven-year-old girl, say, should be made to testify.” Another complex theme for the show to tackle: today’s politicization of child neglect cases, which she calls “regrettable and fascinating.”

For her part, Amy Brenneman is less interested in specific legal topics, and more in “the human toll this work takes, day after day.” The Judging Amy cast members all have issues they want to express or explore, she said. But “it’s a slippery slope when it becomes about ‘messages.’ I’m an actor, not a soapbox girl. I’m interested in portraying what goes on [in juvenile court] with dignity, intelligence, and fairness,” from the point of view of complex, fallible human beings, while telling an engrossing story.