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By Johnny Diaz

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The crescendo of rapid-fire gavel strikes signals that "The People's Court" is back in session and Judge Marilyn Milian is about to make her ruling.

But first, she squares off against one of the litigants, down-home style.

"I wouldn't believe you if you came in here with your tongue notarized," she says, waving the gavel she grips with her perfectly polished red nails.

In another case, Milian interrupts her ruling to blast another defendant with one of her mother's favorite Spanish sayings.

"Adonde tu vas, ya yo fui, me sente, me tome una soda y regrese," which she immediately translates as "Where you're going, I've already been, sat down, had a soda, and came back."

Then there's the case of the Bad Borrower, a sorry litigant who lacked a defense for not paying back $30 he borrowed from a deli co-worker. The defendant then filed a countersuit for missing a day's pay while appearing on "The People's Court."

"On your counterclaim, oh, here is a big surprise: a big fat ZERO!" Milian snaps, making a zero with her thumb and forefinger. "Pay the man his $30. You are the one wasting my time, not him."

For the past year, there's been a new judge presiding over "The People's Court." She's a glamorous and vivacious human lie detector from Miami whose rulings are often prefaced by commonsense Spanish-language adages she learned from her Cuban mother.

When Milian took the job in January, she not only became the show's first female jurist, she also became its first Hispanic judge. And her presence has changed not only the tenor of the show, but its ratings as well.

"To me, that says we (Hispanics) have arrived," says Milian, 40. "I sense the importance of not messing up. I am aware, for better or worse, that I am a role model to many Latinas around the country."

Two of those young Latinas are Milian's daughters, Cristina, 5, and Alexandra, 4, who romp around the family's spacious Coral Gables house, waiting impatiently as their mother chats with a visitor. A day later, a third daughter, Sofia Elena, would be born at South Miami Hospital.

Being the people's judge requires Milian to juggle a gavel and a family. Since January, she has flown to New York City twice weekly to tape the nationally syndicated show. The schedule affords her five days at home with her family - one of the main perks that persuaded her to leave the Miami-Dade circuit bench for television.

Looking back in her first year on "The People's Court," Milian says "without a doubt, I have no regrets. I see more of my family now than when I was a sitting

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judge here in the 11th Judicial Circuit. I have the rest of the week to devote to my family."

Her husband, John Schlesinger, a Miami federal prosecutor, supports her decision.

"It has been a total blessing. We see more of her now than when she was a judicial judge," says Schlesinger, who becomes Mom twice a week when Milian goes to New York. "The toughest part for me is when she is out of town. It's the little things that are a little tricky, like when I have to fix my daughter's hair when her mom is not around."

The 20-year-old show is considered the granddaddy of the television court shows, but all of "The People's Court's" previous judges were white-haired men. And when Jerry Sheindlin, the last in that line, began thinking of retirement, producers embarked on a national search for a new style of jurist.

"We felt Latinas were not well represented in the courtroom genre," said David Scott, a producer of the show, which takes real small-claims civil cases and tries them in a televised court. The subsequent rulings are binding by law.

"She has revolutionized the show," Scott says of Milian. "She has added a spark. She is funny. She is harsh when she needs to be. She is smart. She is pretty.

"She is just one good package all around."

And the passing of "The People's Court" gavel to Milian - a sassy, tell-it-like-it-is Cuban-American - has given the show new energy. The program has seen its average daily audience grow to 2 million a day since Milian took over - though that remains just a fraction of the 7.3 million viewers who tune in to "Judge Judy," the most-watched court TV show.

The show's success comes as no surprise to Milian's former co-workers, who now watch the judge deliver verdicts with a flourish on television.

"She is star material," says Jacqueline Hogan Scola, president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, who worked alongside Milian in the Miami-Dade state attorney's office in the 1980s. "She has always been a very animated person. She is somebody you can't ignore."

It is that rambunctious bravado that people have recognized in Milian since childhood. She grew up in Miami, attending St. Brendan's Catholic School and the University of Miami, where she intended to major in psychology. But her mother, Georgina, told her she was always a better talker than listener.

"She said I was always very `peleona"' (argumentative)," says Milian, who switches easily from English to Spanish. At 18, she interned at the Dade state attorney's office and found her new calling, law.

She graduated cum laude from Georgetown University Law School and later worked as an assistant state attorney in Dade County - a job Janet Reno hired her for. When she was 32, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her to the county court, where she handled domestic violence cases in criminal and civil divisions, and two years ago Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the Miami circuit court.

Among the differences Milian has found between the Miami bench and ruling over" The People's Court" is the freedom she has to speak her mind on rulings.

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