Judge Job Description and Career Profile
A judge is an appointed or elected magistrate who presides over court proceedings. A judge rules on questions of law acts as a referee between the litigating parties and renders decisions in legal disputes.
In the Courtroom
A judge performs a variety of tasks inside and outside the courtroom. In the courtroom, a judge hears allegations of the prosecuting and defending parties, listens to witness testimony, rules on the admissibility of evidence, inform defendants of their rights, instructs the jury, questions witnesses, and rules on motions presented by counsel. In criminal court, judges determine the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants and impose sentences on defendants found guilty. In civil cases, a judge may determine liability or damages.
Outside the Courtroom
Outside the courtroom (“in chambers”), a judge researches laws and regulations, issues opinions and case decisions, supervises the work of law clerks and other court staff, meets with attorneys to discuss cases and encourage settlement, and establishes court rules and procedures. Some judges perform marriage ceremonies and issue marriage licenses.
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. 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.
Judges must possess excellent logical reasoning, analytical and decision-making skills to analyze a complex case and statutory law and render sound legal decisions. Thorough knowledge of criminal and civil procedure, jurisdictional rules and the court system is critical. Top-notch writing ability is necessary to draft clear, concise, well-researched opinions, bench memoranda, and other legal documents. Excellent mediation skills are also necessary to resolve discovery disputes and promote a settlement between the parties.
Judges and magistrates earn a median salary of $101,690 per year, according to the Department of Labor, with the top 10 percent earning more than $145,600 and the bottom 10 percent earning less than $29,540. Generally, the highest paying judgeships are those within the Federal court system. Judges with limited jurisdiction, such as magistrates, generally earn the lowest salaries.
Overall employment is projected to grow more slowly than average, but varies by specialty, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Due to the prestige associated with serving on the bench, competition for positions as judges and magistrates is intense. 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.
The National Center for State Courts provides publications and information regarding worldwide court operations, including information on compensation for state judicial officers and state court administrators.