Ana María Polo: TV's New Judge

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

English-language daytime legal shows usually end in a monetary judgment and the robe-cloaked official dispensing his or her own form of folksy wisdom. Caso Cerrado, meanwhile, often winds up resembling an MMA fight between angry abuelas or an impromptu dance party.

Issues go beyond simple monetary disagreements and can include cases ranging from child custody and family disputes to immigration. Memorable guests have been a woman who identified as a vampire and wore surgically implanted horns, a vinyl-banana-hammock-clad go-go boy, and a mother of six with double-E breasts.

Reigning over it all is the true star of the show, Ana María Polo, a 55-year-old, Coral Gables-based Cuban-American lawyer with a degree from the University of Miami. Born in Havana, Polo originally wanted to be an actor but took the law track instead.

"My parents refused to let me get involved in acting," Polo says. "They didn't see it as honorable enough, I suppose, but I decided on law because I've always had a passion for justice, a passion for order and for things that were right."

Life still found a way to thrust her into the limelight. In 2001, Miami-based producers wanting to export the traditional courtroom show to Latin America were looking for a host but couldn't find the right personality after auditioning more than 300 lawyers. They had seen Polo dispense legal advice on television before and suspected she'd be a natural fit. The gamble paid off.

Broadcast in the U.S. on Telemundo, Caso Cerrado has become the most popular legal-arbitration-based show in Latin America. In fact, in 2010 it made history by becoming the first show broadcast on a Spanish-language network to garner a Daytime Emmy nomination for Best Legal/Courtroom Show, competing against mainstays like Judge Judy and The People's Court.

Unlike many of her competitors, however, Polo has never served on a traditional judicial bench and takes the title of arbitrator rather than judge (that, of course, doesn't mean she can't bang a gavel like the best of them, even if it's literally to salsa music).

"It's more an informal place," she says of her set. "It's more like the Coliseum."

But that doesn't mean Polo doesn't take her televised work seriously. "Caso Cerrado has very passionate, high-stakes cases. Some of them are very everyday things, but many of them are social issues that would never get to court."

It's Polo's blunt common sense that holds the show together. Even non-Spanish-speaking Americans have begun to take notice. Polo says she's working with a syndication company to put together an English-language show. She can't say much about the format yet beyond the fact it will be more of a talk show than a courtroom setting, but she's confident her appeal will cross language barriers.

"I don't think this is a time to start distinguishing and dividing people," she says. "Hispanics are an integral part of our population, and it's time to reflect as much."

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Kyle Munzenrieder