By Darlene Donloe
As the judge of the new courtroom show, “Relative Justice with Judge Rhonda Wills,” Rhonda Wills witnesses lots of family reunions — sans the familial camaraderie, park setting, matching shirts, music and food.
Instead, Wills finds herself presiding over some serious and some not-so-serious cases involving families at odds, running the gamut from marital, parental, sibling and extended family conflicts.
“Relative Justice,” shot in Lexington, Kentucky, is a new daytime nationally syndicated show that focuses on inter-family legal disputes that is set to premiere Sept. 13. The show will air Monday through Friday on KCAL-9 in Los Angeles.
It’s described as a syndicated, arbitration-based, unscripted court show that pulls back the curtain on family matters, moving the drama from the dining room to the courtroom.
Producers couldn’t find a better cheerleader for the show than Wills, a mixture of brains, beauty and talent complemented by a fiery, go-get-’em demeanor that brings just the perfect punch to the proceedings.
During a conversation with the Houston native, Wills’ love for the law, equity and everyday people is apparent. She wears her passion for all three on her sleeve.
“Any time there is injustice, I am there,” Wills said. “My life’s work is about fighting injustice and inequality.”
As a highly respected lawyer with 20 years of practicing law under her belt, Wills, who has her own law firm headquartered in Houston with a satellite office in Los Angeles, has seen her share of all types of cases.
“I do a lot of civil rights cases and personal injury,” said Wills, who went to the University of Texas at Austin and received a degree in international business before going to the University of Texas School of Law.
“I’m a litigator. I fight for people who have been wronged by big corporations,” she said. “I’ve been called a dragon-slayer lawyer because I fight for everyday Americans who are voiceless without my voice. I’ve been passionate about justice all my life.”
Some of her law firm’s cases involve race and gender discrimination, gender pay inequities and employment having to do with sexual orientation and more.
Wills, who describes herself as growing up in humble beginnings, said fighting for everyday people is her purpose.
“I grew up poor, one of five kids raised by a single mother,” said Wills, a married (to publicist Courtney Barnes) mother of four. “My mom worked several jobs.
“I told myself when I grew up, I was determined to fight for everyday people. As an African-American woman, I also decided I was going to fight for racial discrimination, which still exists. The fight continues.”
Wills has won her share of court battles.
“It feels great to win for my clients because I know that in many cases, but for me going in, they would have no justice at all,” she said. “I fight for them tooth and nail.”
This isn’t Wills’ first television rodeo. She previously appeared on WeTV’s “Sisters in Law” and is also a CNN legal commentator.
She was tapped as the judge for “Relative Justice” after the producers of “Sisters in Law,” a show about female lawyers, asked if she would be interested in doing the show.
“I was very interested in doing ‘Relative Justice’ because the whole concept is special and unique because it focuses on families like most of my work,” said Wills, who comes from a large family with 50 first cousins. “When I heard about this show, I found it fascinating and exciting. I could hardly wait to do it.”
Wills said all the cases involve real families, real litigants and real disputes.
“Whether they are related by blood, marriage or children, they are all family disputes,” she said. “One thing COVID taught us was that we all need our families. You have to value your family.”
Wills said while doing the show, she understood that even when it’s a monetary dispute, “it’s always deeper than just money.”
“They are usually on the show because of long-running disputes that became the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “It’s always dramatic. It’s different because there are days when we are all laughing. Some of the family drama is hilarious.
“Other cases are emotional and there is a lot of family drama centered around traumatic things that happened to the family. There are times we are all crying because the case before me is so emotional, dramatic and intense.”
On several occasions, Wills said she found herself having to give some families a stern talking to.
“Sometimes you need to tell them they are wrong,” Wills said. “If they deserve to be berated, I tell them. They will get it from me. I did go off on some people. I had to check some of them.
“Sometimes families can get rowdy. It’s my courtroom and they will be respectful.”
Wills said during the taping, she was never confused about which way to rule.
“Sometimes the law is the law,” she said. “I’m going to rule on the side of justice. There is something called equity. But if there is a gray line to allow me to rule and be more equitable, you have to balance the law with what is equitable and fair.”
Wills, who is licensed to practice law in Texas, California and New York, said one of the reasons she enjoys doing the show is because “It’s unlike other courtroom shows.”
“There isn’t a show dealing with families,” said Wills, who admitted she doesn’t watch a lot of court TV. “That’s what makes it different. It was really exciting and fulfilling to help these families.
“I tried to bring families back together. Sometimes someone is toxic. For instance, in one of the episodes there was a cousin having an affair with their first cousin’s husband.
“I told the first cousin, ‘You need to cut them off.”
Whether she’s sitting on the bench on “Relative Justice,” or practicing law with her own firm, Wills said, “the law is the law.”
Wills, who has won more than $100 million for her clients over the years, said she finds her work rewarding.
“Fortunately, being passionate, I’ve been successful,” she said. “It’s gratifying. When you see a family that has been torn apart due to what a big corporation did, and I get them justice, that’s gratifying.”
Wills said filming the show was equally satisfying.
“It was a joy,” she said. “Filming the show was a joy. It was a labor of love. I hope through the show, I was able to make a difference. It was considered work, but it didn’t feel like work. I can hardly wait to share “Relative Justice” with America.”
Admittedly, Wills said there is not a single scenario in the 150 episodes she shot where it was not something she could identify with.
“We can all relate,” she said. “Either me, my family or friends or their families have gone through it. We probably could have used a Judge Rhonda Wills.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.