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Judge and Judicial Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Career and Job Highlights for Judges and Judicial Workers

  • While most persons working as judges have law degrees, candidates are only required to have work experience and a bachelor’s degree.
  • Invariably there will be competition for jobs as a judge or magistrate.
  • Due to the large amount of time and money required for litigation, services like mediation, arbitration, and conciliation are increasing in demand.

Judge and Judicial Career Overview

The principle task of judicial officials like judges and magistrates is to oversee legal proceedings and apply Federal, State, and local laws. Everything from common traffic offenses, to high-profile criminal proceedings, to constitutional issues, to business disputes are presided over by a judge. Judicial workers must make protecting the legal rights of everyone paramount in the way they conduct trials and hearings, placing importance on issues of fairness.
A judge’s most obvious role is to listen to attorneys’ arguments with regards to the trials and hearings over which he or she is presiding. In addition to presiding over trails, judges also make decisions about what evidence will be permitted in court, how testimony will be presented, how examination of witnesses will occur, and may be required to settle disputes between attorneys. Judges also must ensure that protocol is followed, and where no protocol exists, must decide how the situation will proceed based on existing laws.

Prior to hearing the cases in court, judges hear pretrial arguments. After listening to the accusations and hearing about the evidence, they decide whether a trial is needed. There are two types of courts in the US: civil and criminal. Judges may impose limitations on persons involved in a civil case until the trial is complete. In criminal cases judges determine how much bail will be, or they determine that the accused must stay in jail until the trial is over.
Judges often work behind the scenes in their chambers where they read attorneys’ briefs, do research on cases, and write their legal opinions. Occasionally judges are also required to oversee the staff of the court. When a jury is selected to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, a judge is responsible for instructing them regarding relevant laws and proper methods to interpret facts. The judge hears the jury’s decision at the end of a trial. When a jury is not involved in a trial, it is the judge who determines guilt and imposes the sentence. When it is a civil case, the judge mandates compensation, or relief, to one of the parties involved in the lawsuit.

A judge’s jurisdiction describes the power a judge has to preside over a given case. Federal and State court systems have general trial court judges who may preside over any case, civil or criminal, that comes to them through their system. For example, a state general trial court judge in Idaho has no jurisdiction over a case brought in Oregon, but does over a case brought in Idaho. General trial court judges usually try all felony offenses and civil cases that have exceeded a lower court’s jurisdiction. Other judges only hear cases that have been previously tried in federal or state courts. Called appellate court judges, they can overturn the decision of the lower court if they believe that there was an error committed or legal precedence should have made the case fall the other way. Appellate court judges base their decisions on the previous court records and written and oral arguments from attorneys, rather than on testimony given by witnesses.

Some state court judges have jurisdiction over only a few certain types of cases. Some examples of this limited jurisdiction are small claims, traffic violations, and misdemeanors. Judges with limited jurisdiction are sometimes called justices of the peace, magistrates, county court judges, or municipal court judges. While most of their time is spent hearing the cases mentioned above, some states allow their judges to hear more serious cases, like probate, contracts, and domestic issues.

Some judges, called administrative law judges, hearing offers, or adjudicators, make decisions about administrative procedures and rules. Employed by administrative agencies, these judges may determine someone’s eligibility for programs like Social Security or welfare. They also oversee cases determining agencies’ compliance with economic regulatory requirements, employment regulations, and health and safety requirements.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR)—including conciliation, mediation, and arbitration—provide alternative options for settling legal disputes without having to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of the court system. If the ADR pursued does not adequately settle the dispute, testimony and statements are not allowed to be used later. The ADR process is less formal than a trial in court, though the proceedings are still confidential and private.
Prior to beginning the arbitration process and submitting to the final and binding decision made by the arbitrator, parties agree on the rules of the process and scope of the award to be given. The arbitrator is an impartial person, usually an attorney or a businessperson with expertise in the issue at hand. Because the decisions made during arbitration are usually final and binding, courts do not typically review the decisions; some parties agree ahead of time that the arbitrator’s decision will be only advisory and not binding.

When two parties wish to preserve their relationship, yet still resolve their dispute, they often pursue mediation. Unlike in arbitration, the mediator makes no decisions; they advise the parties and direct the conversation, but the parties themselves make the final decision. If either party is dissatisfied with the proceedings they may pursue different and further legal action. The parties agree ahead of time how the mediation process will be paid for.
Similar to a mediator, a conciliator guides and directs the parties’ discussion. The decision made by the conciliator may be binding or advisory, depending on the decision made ahead of time by both parties. Parties typically split the conciliator’s fees evenly.

Judge and Judicial Training and Job Qualifications

The minimum requirement to become a judge or magistrate is work experience and a bachelor’s degree. It is not necessary to be a lawyer, though most judges were lawyers first. Federal and State judges are usually required to hold a law degree. Administrative judges must hold a law degree and pass a rigorous exam given by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Some states do not require their administrative judges to hold a law degree; additionally, about forty states allow non-law-degree holding persons to become judges of limited jurisdiction. However, those with legal experience do find better and more ample opportunities to become judges.

Judges’ term lengths and methods of appointment vary greatly. Judicial nominees for most States and some Federal judgeships are first screened by a nominating committee consisting of members of the bar and the public. While some appellate court and trial court judges may serve terms up to 14 years, most state court judges serve fixed terms averaging about 5 years each. The majority of state and local judges are chosen in elections, though some are appointed. Federal judges are appointed virtually for life by Federal agencies or district judges. Federal magistrate judges serve 8-year terms, while part-time federal magistrates serve 4-year terms.

Of course, States provide training and orientation for new judges. Agencies such as the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center hold sponsor training and education for judges and court personnel. Education does not stop after these initial orientation courses: a majority of states require judges to take continuing education courses while on the bench. These education courses may last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Adjudicators of alternative dispute resolution are held to different and often less stringent education requirements than are judges. Most states do not require that private mediators be licensed or hold a special certification. Many private mediators do, however, comply with guidelines set by mediation organizations, like the American Arbitration Association (AAA). This organization requires mediators on its panel to complete training, be recommended by the trainers, and even complete an apprenticeship. Mediators in a State- or court-sponsored service are required to meet requirements in training and experience.
Education opportunities in arbitration, mediation, and conciliation are plentiful. While many schools offered dispute resolution and conflict management specialties housed within other degree programs, 16 post-secondary schools offered master’s degrees, and 2 even offered doctoral degrees. Other opportunities are available from mediation programs and mediation membership organizations. Prospective mediators, arbitrators, and conciliators benefit from background degrees in law, public policy, or other related fields.

Judge and Judicial Job and Employment Opportunities

Despite rising caseloads at both the State and Federal levels, new judgeships are expected to become available at a slower-than-average rate through 2012. Most positions will become available as judges retire or are appointed to higher office. Other positions may become available as they are approved by law, though budgetary constraints will likely limit the number of new positions.

Competition for judgeships is spurred by the prestige holding such positions brings. Where obtaining a position as a judge requires the candidate to be elected, vying for public support and ultimately the majority of the votes may be an expensive endeavor; coupled with having to compete against other very qualified candidates, becoming a judge can be a daunting task. Some qualified attorneys are choosing not to pursue a judgeship in order to work in the private sector where the pay is significantly higher. Judge workloads have been increasing in number and complexity as more and more people are going to court to settle disputes, and the types of issues being reviewed are becoming more and more complicated. This is so because of developments in technology, internet business and commerce, science and medicine, and blurring boundaries between states and countries.

Whereas judgeships are expected to become available at a slower than average rate, opportunities for alternative dispute resolution, namely mediators, conciliators, and arbitrators, are expected to become available at an average rate through 2012. This may be so because alternative methods of dispute resolution are typically cheaper, faster, and more definite than court trials. Many parties wishing to avoid the high cost and lengthy process of a court trial will likely turn to ADR in the future. Because of the budgetary constraints and slow growth in Federal Agencies, few positions for administrative law judges are expected to become available.

Historical Earnings Information

The annual median salary of judges, including magistrates and magistrate judges, was $94,070 in 2002. The bottom 10 percent earned $24,250 or less, while the top 10 percent earned at least $138,000. The two middle quartiles earned from $44,970 to $120,390. Judges and magistrates employed with the State earned a median $112,720, while judges and magistrates at the local level earned less than half that at $54,750. Mediators, arbitrators, and conciliators averaged $47,320, while administrative judges and hearing officers netted a median $64,540.