A VIEW FROM THE BENCH

By Judge Joseph A. Wapner Simon and Schuster. 249 pp. $17.95

Anyone who has watched Judge Joseph Wapner preside over television's "People's Court" knows him as the very model of a modern tribal elder: kindly but firm, compassionate but impatient with self-justifying nonsense. Now, with the publication of "A View From the Bench," a new facet of the judge comes to the fore: He is a crackerjack raconteur.

For the uninitiated, "The People's Court" brings real disputants into a make-believe court on the TV circuit. Yet inasmuch as the parties have agreed to be bound by the court's decision, there is a sense that law is being applied while the viewer watches. The cases are typically tame -- minor injuries, nuisance pets, faulty gadgets -- but each side has an impassioned story and, often, a point. The fascination lies in watching Wapner, a retired California trial judge, puncture inflated claims, commiserate with bruised egos and strike satisfying compromises. In a recent review of televised courtrooms, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz singled out "The People's Court" as "a truly great show."

However, the stories in Wapner's book derive from his years on the real-life bench. Most of the cases he handled were grander than those on "The People's Court," but the judge has always been much the same -- a judicial activist not in the sense of breaking new legal ground but in the way he thrusts himself into disputes.

Take the matter of Tom Shearing, Wapner's nom de guerre for a tippling lawyer who regularly showed up late for trials. One afternoon when Shearing arrived half an hour late after the lunch break, Wapner had had enough. Shearing gave as an excuse his sudden remembrance of "a doctor's appointment for severe headaches that have been bothering me." Wapner asked for the doctor's name and phone number. "Surprisingly, Mr. Shearing blurted them both out. Then the race began. I bolted for my chambers to my phone. Simultaneously, Mr. Shearing ran for the pay phones in the hallway."

The judge got through first, ascertaining that Shearing hadn't seen his doctor for months. He was held in contempt and fined $50. Wapner's fleetness evidently did not bring Shearing to his senses. A few years later he lied again about another failure to appear, and a sterner judge threw him in jail.

Wapner's forte is not stringency but empathy. "For a judge," he writes, "the quality of sensing others' pain is crucial ... The law on the books is about resolving pain and conflict in the abstract. Judges make it happen in the flesh. If they cannot feel for the people in front of them, they should be in another job."

Because he can insinuate himself so thoroughly into the minds of litigants, Wapner has long been a maestro of arbitration and pretrial settlement. One of his coups was to bring Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and his first wife to the bargaining table when they were in the throes of divorce.

Indeed, Wapner is something of a bear for settlement. He once led a brother and sister squabbling over the management of an inherited business to settlement by convincing them that going to trial would alienate one from the other for the rest of their lives. "The usual {result}," he asserts, "is that a settlement is at least as much as a jury would have awarded, taking into account legal fees."

"A View From the Bench" is a meandering book, in which a sober chapter on rape cases can be followed by some folksy autobiography. The most eclectic chapter may also be the most enjoyable: "Try the Impossible," about the chutzpah of defendants who will make any argument to get off. After two would-be terrorists accidentally blew up their Los Angeles apartment, police officers entered and seized more dynamite and some machine guns. Charged with illegal possession, the culprits claimed to be victims of an unconstitutional search. Wapner's dry assessment: "That was the easiest case I have ever had to decide."

At times Wapner's warmth, kindness and generally sun-drenched life threaten to mire the book in mawkishness, but the swipe he takes at former California governor Jerry Brown adds a welcome note of human frailty. Brown, Wapner says, "had the interesting idea, which he apparently got from Mao Tse-tung, that all civil servants should make the same amount of money, so that a chief surgeon at a municipal hospital, for example, would make as much as a gardener." Because Wapner campaigned vigorously against an attempt to reduce judges' pay, he claims, Brown refused to heed widespread sentiment for appointing him to the state court of appeals.

"It hurt a great deal," Wapner writes of Brown's rejection -- an admission that helps account for the judge's famous empathy. The reviewer is a Washington lawyer and writer.