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The Law East of Judge Judy

updated 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

HIS FAVORITE CASE? EASY. "THERE was a woman who had a little Chihuahua," says the judge, warming to his tale. "Her neighbor had a pet python, and it escaped for three days. One day she heard her dog clawing at the door, and she looked out and saw the python swallowing the dog whole." The dog owner had the presence of mind to take a picture of the deed and brought it to court. "She sued for $1,500, for the value of the dog, plus pain and suffering," he says. "Since there was no proof of pain and suffering, all she could get was the value of the dog."

As outlandish as the story is the man telling it: Edward Irving Koch, 73, the former three-term mayor of New York City, who is now employed as Judge Wapner's replacement on the revived syndicated series The People's Court. The same qualities that made Hizzoner an internationally known walking, squawking symbol of the city he ruled—with wit, a New York accent and chutzpah by the bucketful—play perfectly in Court. And so what if the disputes he adjudicates are of less than municipal importance? "Most mayors go back to private life, and nobody knows who they are," says Koch. "I think I'm doing well."

Since 1989, when, as Koch says, "the people threw me out" in favor of David N. Dinkins, he has become a one-man media circus, with an annual seven-figure salary. Aside from various TV and film cameos (including spots on Spin City and in The First Wives Club) and lectures around the country, he is a partner in a law firm, hosts a daily radio show and writes movie reviews for local newspapers. He also sends out packets of clippings and musings every six weeks to about 200 lucky acquaintances.

What they get—what everyone gets from Koch—is blunt, quotable opinion. "I have no hesitation in saying Dinkins is a nice guy and a terrible mayor," says Koch of his successor. As for the Big Apple incumbent: "Rudy Giuliani is a good mayor but a terrible person." Frankness like that was what the producers of The People's Court were looking for when they decided to bring back the show, which ran originally from 1981 to 1993, and base it in New York City starting last September.

"He's feisty, knows the city and he's colorful," says executive producer Stu Billett. Yet Koch faces at least one problem Judge Wapner did not: competition, in the form of Judge Judy, a rival show featuring retired New York City family court Judge Judith Sheindlin, whom, ironically, Koch appointed to the bench in 1982. At the moment, Judy edges Court in the ratings. "There are 250 million people in the United States," notes Koch, who says he wishes her well. "She can have 125 million. I just want the other half."

The son of Polish Jewish immigrants Louis Koch, a furrier and hatcheck concessionaire, and his wife, Joyce Silpe, Koch served in the Army during World War II, in the 104th Infantry Division, before being discharged as a sergeant. After law school he went into private practice, where he remained for 20 years. He began his political career making speeches for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and in 1966 was elected a city councilman. Elected to Congress in 1968, he served nine years before becoming mayor. "I'm a liberal with sanity, not a knee jerk," says Koch, summing up his political philosophy.

Though he suffers from arrhythmia and had a mild stroke in 1987, he maintains a hectic daily schedule that begins at 5 a.m. and doesn't end until midnight. On Saturdays, Koch, a lifelong bachelor, has several old friends from his mayoral days over to his two-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment, smartly decorated with Barcelona chairs and a Frank Lloyd Wright-design table, to nosh on bagels and cheese.

Eight years removed from office, Koch is still recognized everywhere he goes, and revels in it. "Being the mayor of the city of New York is considered like the head of a foreign country," he says. "You never lose the title. But. for some, I'm now the judge. I like that too."

NICK CHARLES
ELIZABETH McNEIL in New York City

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