What Does a Judge Do?
Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More
A judge is an appointed or elected magistrate who presides over court proceedings. Judges rule on questions of law acts as a referee between the litigating parties and renders decisions in legal disputes.
Judge Duties & Responsibilities
A judge performs a variety of tasks inside and outside the courtroom. In the courtroom, they perform the following duties:
- Hears allegations of the prosecuting and defending parties
- Listens to witness testimony
- Rules on the admissibility of evidence
- Informs defendants of their rights
- Instructs the jury
- Questions witnesses
- Rules on motions presented by counsel
- In criminal court, determines the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants and imposes sentences on defendants found guilty
- In civil cases, determines liability or damages
Judges don't do all of their work in the courtroom. They perform certain duties outside the courtroom (“in chambers”) as well. They research laws and regulations, issue opinions and case decisions, supervise the work of law clerks and other court staff, meet with attorneys to discuss cases and encourage settlement, and establish court rules and procedures. Some judges also perform marriage ceremonies and issue marriage licenses.
A judge's salary varies based on the area of expertise, level of experience, education, certifications, and other factors. According to the Department of Labor, the salary ranges differ depending on the type of judge. Generally, the highest paying judgeships are those within the Federal court system. Judges with limited jurisdiction, such as magistrates, generally earn the lowest salaries.
For administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers:
- Median Annual Salary: $99,850 ($48 /hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $169,640 ($81.56/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $45,120 ($21.69/hour)
For judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates:
- Median Annual Salary: $133,920 ($64.38 /hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $193,330 ($92.95/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $34,790 ($16.73/hour)
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
Education, Training & Certification
The judge position involves fulfilling education and training requirements as follows:
- Education: Most, but not all, judges possess law degrees. State and Federal judges typically complete the educational requirements to become a lawyer and work for several years as an attorney before entering the judicial system. Some judges are elected or appointed to serve on the bench for fixed terms.
- Exam: In addition to a law degree, federal administrative law judges need to pass a competitive exam from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management
- Training: Training for judges and other judicial-branch personnel is provided by The Federal Judicial Center, American Bar Association, National Judicial College and National Center for State Courts.
Judge Skills & Competencies
In addition to education and other requirements, candidates that possess the following skills may be able to perform more successfully in the job:
- Logic and reasoning skills: Judges must possess excellent logical reasoning, analytical and decision-making skills to analyze a complex case and statutory law and render sound legal decisions.
- Legal knowledge: Thorough knowledge of criminal and civil procedure, jurisdictional rules and the court system is critical.
- Writing skills: Top-notch writing ability is necessary to draft clear, concise, well-researched opinions, bench memoranda, and other legal documents.
- Mediation skills: Excellent mediation skills are also necessary to resolve discovery disputes and promote a settlement between the parties.
Overall employment for judges is projected to grow more slowly than average, but varies by specialty, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Although caseloads are increasing, budgetary issues may limit judicial hiring.
Most job opportunities will arise through judicial retirement, promotion to higher judicial offices and the creation of new judgeships as authorized by law. Candidates with law degrees and/or legal experience and excellent academic credentials will find greater employment opportunities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth outlook for all judge occupations between 2016 and 2026 ranges from 4% to 6%, driven by budgetary constraints that limit the number of available jobs. This growth rate compares to the projected 7% growth for all occupations.
Judges spend the bulk of their working hours in a courtroom or office. Some judges may be required to travel to different courthouses an counties within their local area or state. Hearing cases with difficult or confrontational individuals can cause the job to become stressful.
Judges may work evening hours and on the weekends. Additionally, they may need to be available at all hours in case of the need for a search warrant or restraining order.
How to Get the Job
Since most judges are elected or appointed to their positions, they must spend time networking and garnering political support. Many judges at the local and state level are appointed to terms ranging from 4 to 14 years. These are fixed, and often renewable, terms. A small number of judges, such as those working in the appellate court, are appointed for a life-long term.
The prestige associated with becoming a judge, and the fact that many need to be elected or nominated into the position, also ensures continued competition for these positions.
Comparing Similar Jobs
People interested in a judicial career also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:
- Arbitrators, Mediators, and Conciliators: $62,270
- Lawyers: $120,910
- Private Detectives and Investigators: $50,090