Judges preside over trials or hearings and listen as attorneys representing the parties present and argue their cases. They rule on the admissibility of evidence and methods of conducting testimony, and they settle disputes between the opposing attorneys. They ensure that rules and procedures are followed, and if unusual circumstances arise for which standard procedures have not been established, judges direct how the trial will proceed based on their knowledge of the law.
Judges often hold pretrial hearings for cases during which they listen to allegations and, based on the evidence presented, determine whether the cases have enough merit for a trial to be held. In criminal cases, judges may decide that persons charged with crimes should be held in jail pending their trial or may set conditions for release through the trial. In civil cases, judges may impose restrictions upon the parties until a trial is held.
When trials are held, juries are often selected to decide cases. However, judges decide cases when the law does not require a jury trial, or when the parties waive the right to a jury. Judges instruct juries on applicable laws, direct them to deduce the facts from the evidence presented, and hear their verdicts. In many states, judges sentence those convicted in criminal cases. They also award relief to litigants, including, where appropri' ate, compensation for damages in civil cases.
Judges also work outside the courtroom in chambers. In their private offices, judges read documents on pleadings and motions, research legal issues, hold hearings with lawyers, write opinions, and oversee court operations. Running a court is like running a small business, and judges manage their courts' administrative and clerical staff, too.
Judges' duties vary according to the extent of their jurisdictions and powers. General trial court judges of the federal and state court systems have jurisdiction over any case in their systems. They generally try those civil cases that transcend the jurisdiction of lower courts and all cases involving felony offenses.
Federal and state appellate court judges, although few in number, have the power to overrule decisions made by trial court or administrative law judges if they determine that legal errors were made in a case or if legal precedent does not support the judgment of the lower court. They rule on fewer cases and rarely have direct contacts with the people involved.
The majority of state court judges preside in courts in which jurisdiction is limited by law to certain types of cases. Various titles are assigned to these judges, but among the most common are municipal court judge, county court judge, magistrate, or justice of the peace. Traffic violations, misdemeanors, small-claims cases, and pretrial hearings constitute the bulk of the work of these judges, but some states allow them to handle cases involving domestic relations, probate, contracts, and selected other areas of the law.
Administrative law judges, formerly called hearing officers, are employed by government agencies to rule on appeals of agency administrative decisions. They make decisions on a person's eligibility for various Social Security benefits or worker's compensation, protection of the environment, enforcement of health and safety regulations, employment discrimination, and compliance with economic regulatory requirements.
Many judges work a standard forty-hour week, but a third of all judges work over fifty hours per week. Some judges with limited jurisdiction are employed part-time and divide their time between their judicial responsibilities and other careers.
Most judges, although not all, have been lawyers first. All federal judges and state trial and appellate court judges are required to be lawyers or learned in law. About forty states presently allow non-lawyers to hold limited jurisdiction judgeships, but opportunities are better with law experience.
Federal administrative law judges must be lawyers and pass a competitive examination administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Many state administrative law judges and other hearing officials are not required to be lawyers, but law degrees are preferred for most positions.
Federal judges are appointed for life by the president, with the consent of the Senate. Federal administrative law judges are appointed by the various federal agencies with virtually lifetime tenure. About half of all state judges are appointed, while the remainders are elected in partisan or nonpartisan state elections.
Most state and local judges serve fixed terms, which range from four or six years for most limited jurisdiction judgeships to as long as fourteen years for some appellate court judges. Judicial nominating commissions, composed of members of the bar and the public, are used to screen candidates for judgeships in many states, as well as for federal judgeships.
All states have some type of orientation for newly elected or appointed judges. Thirteen states also require judges to take continuing education courses while serving on the bench.
The prestige associated with serving on the bench should ensure continued intense competition for openings. Employment of judges is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. Contradictory social forces affect the demand for judges. Pushing up demand are public concerns about crime, safety, and efficient administration of justice; on the other hand, tight public funding should slow job growth.
Most job openings will arise as judges retire. Traditionally, many judges have held their positions until late in life. Now, early retirement is becoming more common, creating more job openings; however, becoming a judge will still be difficult. Besides competing with other qualified people, judicial candidates must gain political support in order to be elected or appointed.
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