Judges in local, state, and federal courts preside over trials and hearings. They ensure court proceedings are fair and rule on the admissibility of evidence. Judges apply precedent with the goal of protecting the legal rights of both prosecution and defense during court proceedings. Judges may hold pretrial hearings and decide whether a defendant is allowed to post bail until trial or remain incarcerated until the case is heard.
Judges give instructions to the jury and decide innocence or guilt of a defendant in a trial without a jury. Outside the courtroom, the judge reads legal briefs, holds hearings with attorneys, researches laws and precedents, writes opinions, and supervises administrative staff.
The duties of a judge depend on his or her jurisdiction. Municipal court judges usually work in the area of small claims, misdemeanors, and pretrial hearings. Administrative law judges rule on appeals involving regulations of government agencies such as workers’ compensation and enforcement of health and safety laws.
State and federal trial judges exercise jurisdiction over all legal cases in their court system. Appellate court judges can overrule federal and state courts and administrative law judges.
Judge Career Requirements
Most judges have law degrees and often years of experience working as attorneys. Currently, about 40 states allow non-lawyers to hold limited-jurisdiction judgeships at the municipal and state level. Federal judgeships require a law degree and passing of the bar for applicants to be considered for an opening on the bench.
Federal judges are appointed for life by the President, with Senate confirmation. Federal administrative law judges are appointed by federal agencies and are also life time appointments. About half of state judges are appointed while the rest are chosen in elections. State and local judges usually serve fixed renewable terms which range from 4 to 6 years for trial court judgeships to 14 years, or even life-time appointments, for some appellate court positions.
Candidates for appointment to state and some federal positions are screened by judicial nominating committees composed of members of the public and members of the bar. Whether elected or appointed, political support is an important factor in obtaining a judgeship.
Education and Training
Judicial training is provided by the Federal Judicial Center, the American Bar Association, National Judicial College and National Center for State Courts with some level of orientation required by all states for newly appointed or elected judges. Continuing education courses vary from a few days to 3 weeks and are often a state requirement. Judges at the federal level must pass an examination presided over by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Judge Career Salary
Small claims and family court judges often work evening hours to accommodate the time constraints of the working public. However, most judges work a standard 40 hour week.
The median annual salary for a judge in 2008 was $110,220 with the middle 50 percent of judges earning between $51,760 and $141,190. The top 10 percent earned over $162,140 while the bottom 10 percent earned less than $32,290. The average for local government judicial seats was $77,390 with the average salary for state judgeships at $126,080. At the federal level, appellate court judges averaged $179,500 per year while district court judges earned $169,300.
Most judges receive health insurance, life insurance, and a pension plan. In addition, they receive judicial immunity protection, expense accounts, retirement plan contributions, paid vacation, holiday and sick leave. States may adjust compensation when federal pay levels change while cost of living adjustments are also possible.
Judge Career Opportunities
Whether elected or appointed, a judge can advance by moving to a court with more jurisdiction and powers. An administrative law judge may move to trial court and eventually become an appellate court judge. An elected judge may move into a higher court as an appointed judge and may eventually be either elected or appointed to the highest court in their state.
Turnover for judges is low and most of the open positions are created by attrition as older judges retire from the bench. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that though few new judgeships will be created in the next few years, the competition for those judgeships may decrease due to an increasing trend of lawyers working in the lucrative private sector rather than choosing the prestige of being a judge.
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