Inspiration for Courtroom Drama Came from Juvenile Judge Mom

Karin Lipson; Newsday

Some two or three years ago, actress Amy Brenneman decided to make a videotape for her mother as a birthday present. As part of the project, she spent a few days at her mother's workplace, talking to colleagues and friends who shared their reminiscences of Ms. Brenneman's mother for her tape.

Since Ms. Brenneman's mother is Connecticut Superior Court Judge Frederica S. Brenneman, going to Mom's office meant hanging out in a branch of the Hartford Superior Court. And since Frederica Brenneman is, specifically, a juvenile-court judge, what her daughter found, she recalls, ''was this very unique group of professionals - social workers, probation officers, all in the same courthouse and working on behalf of children.''

Something clicked. With that birthday tape an idea was born that has become Judging Amy, the new one-hour CBS dramatic series starring - you guessed it - Amy Brenneman, and inspired by the life and times of Judge Frederica S. Brenneman.

In Judging Amy, Ms. Brenneman portrays Amy Gray, newly separated, newly a single mom, and very newly a juvenile-court judge in, yes, Hartford, Conn.

The show debuted in a special time slot Sunday. It moves to its regular Tuesday time period tonight at 10 on CBS (WRDW-TV, Channel 12).

The show also features Tyne Daly as Amy Gray's lovingly acerbic mother, Maxine. A retired social worker, Maxine is frequently at loggerheads with her slightly shell-shocked daughter, a Harvard-educated refugee from New York who has moved with her 6-year-old daughter back to the family home in Hartford. As she starts her life over, Amy finds that her background in corporate law has clearly been less-than-ideal training for her new career.

What makes a good judge, the rookie ''Honorable Amy Madison Gray'' asks her mother in the show's first episode?

''Pee before you take the bench. Don't wear perfume. And always make sure there's no food on your teeth,'' replies the courtroom-savvy Maxine.

That Judge Amy is soon dealing with a case of child neglect is no coincidence. Child neglect ''is really her specialty,'' Ms. Brenneman says of her own mother's work in the juvenile court system. Now semiretired, Judge Brenneman still frequently sits on the bench (''like a substitute judge,'' says her daughter) and serves as a consultant to the show.

Having grown up hearing about juvenile law, ''I was interested in using that for a series - it's a branch of law I had never seen on TV,'' says Ms. Brenneman (perhaps best known for her role as a police officer in the early days of NYPD Blue). ''And it's a different style of courtroom - there's no jury, and the judge gets to participate very freely with everybody in the courtroom.''

As a child, says Ms. Brenneman, she didn't visit her mother's courtroom all that frequently. But ''in the last four or five years, I see her more in court, and it blows me away because all the very best of her comes out.''

''My mother's an extraordinary person. The intelligence, the compassion and the no-nonsense cutting through the bureaucracy - she's the smartest person in the room!''

Based on her credentials, Judge Brenneman (who has declined to give interviews about the show) would seem always to have been the smartest person in the room - or was sitting in an exceptionally smart room. A 1947 magna cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College, she was part of Harvard Law School's first class of women graduates, in 1953. (Amy Brenneman carried on the family tradition by graduating from Harvard University in 1987.) Judge Brenneman was also, says her daughter, ''the second woman to be put on the bench in Connecticut, in 1967. Pretty late, huh?'' she notes, for women to have stormed that particular male bastion.

Judge Brenneman serves above all as legal adviser on each show. ''I send all the scripts to her and see what she has to say, mostly about the legal stuff,'' says her daughter.

And does her mother correct the scripts?

''Yeah, all the time!'' says Ms. Brenneman, laughing. ''I just spoke to her, and she's been giving me an earful about the next episode.''

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